Kosovars delighted to face English ‘allies’
PRISTINA: Kosovo still hopes to reach first European finals at Euro 2020 but has laid on the warmest of welcomes for England, their opponents on the pitch on Sunday but hailed as an ally over its role in the 1990s independence war.
After a 2-1 defeat against Czech Republic on Thursday, the newcomer on the European football scene can no longer qualify for the tournament through the group stage.
However, Kosovo will be in the play-offs next March having progressed through the Nations League, so the dream of reaching its first major tournament finals is still alive. With England already qualified after thrashing Montenegro 7-0 on Thursday, Sunday’s match has little significance but nevertheless authorities and fans in the former Serbian province are gearing up to welcome their visitors. Banners throughout the capital Pristina proclaim “Welcome and Respect” for England in a territory where a number of young people are named after Tony Blair in a tribute to the former British prime minister.
“Thanks to you we now play against you! Forever grateful to you our beloved England!” read another banner in Pristina.
Blair and US president Bill Clinton were the leading advocates of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in response to its late president Slobodan Milosevic’s conflict with pro-independence ethnic Albanians. A decade after the 1998-1999 conflict Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, a move recognised by more than 100 countries, including the United States, Britain and most European Union member states. Some 15,000 tickets were sold out in hours on Tuesday. A giant screen has been erected on the main Zahir Pajaziti square in Pristina for all those unable to be at the Fadil Vokrri stadium to enjoy the game. The Dardanians, as Kosovo fans call themselves, have promised a “magnificent reception” for England’s players and supporters, said one fan, actor Fatmir Spahiu. The breakaway territory of some two million people, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians, only became a member of FIFA and UEFA in 2016, despite fierce opposition from Serbia.