Kosovo celebrates a football homecoming Thursday, nearly a decade after becoming independent, by hosting its first competitive international match, a World Cup 2018 qualifier against injury-plagued Croatia.
It may not be a homecoming that Kosovans, mostly ethnic Albanians, have been wishing for as the match is set in Shkoder, in the north of neighbouring Albania, but the exhilaration is still there and the stands will be packed to their 17,000 capacity.
This time Kosovo was unable to host the match on its own soil not because of politics but because it has no stadiums that are up to international competitive standards.
The former Serbian province was the scene of a brutal conflict which eventually drew NATO into intervening against Belgrade in 1999. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but were admitted to the world football organization FIFA only in May.
Expectations in Kosovo are high, though Croatia are the regional football giants. Last month, the football newcomers took a point from their first Group I qualifier, a 1-1 away draw against Finland.
Only hours ahead of the Finland match, FIFA allowed a batch of players with roots in Kosovo to switch to the new team despite having previously played for other countries.
Coach Albert Bunjaki admitted to reporters that the power of Croatia, a team comprising several global superstars, worries him.
Meanwhile, however, three top Croatian players, captain Luka Modric of Real Madrid, Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona and Dejan Lovren of Liverpool had to withdraw due to injuries.
Croatia coach Radomir Cacic told reporters in Zagreb that the injuries "can't be an alibi" for his squad in an "inspirational" match against first-time hosts Kosovo.
"I expect a hellish atmosphere with spectators being the 12th man for Kosovo - but our boys are used to that and enjoy it," he said.
"Unfortunately, some players have injury problems, but that's football life and we must prepare without them," Andrej Kramaric of Bundesliga's 1899 Hoffenheim said. "Croatia always seek to win and we fear nobody."
Kosovo's centre-back Amir Rahmani, who plays for Croatian side Lokomotiva, warned that even without the key players Croatia are favourites.
"Luka is your best player," he told Monday's edition of Croatia's Sportske Novosti daily. "It is felt in Croatia and Real when he doesn't play and it is good news for us - but you have other dangerous individuals."
Tuesday, October 18, 2016 - 13:36
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - 13:14