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Kosovo emerge as unlikely obstacle in England's smooth path

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By Reuters
Kosovo emerge as unlikely obstacle in England's smooth path
FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Euro 2020 Qualifier - Group A - Kosovo v Czech Republic - Fadil Vokrri Stadium, Pristina, Kosovo - September 7, 2019 Kosovo players celebrate at the end of the match REUTERS/Florion Goga/File Photo/File Photo   -   Copyright  Florion Goga(Reuters)

LONDON (Reuters) – England are breezing through a Euro 2020 qualifying group featuring the fading soccer forces of Bulgaria and the Czech Republic but Kosovo, one of the newest members of the world soccer family, may be about to make their life tougher.

The small Balkan nation of 1.8 million inhabitants may be ranked 120th in the FIFA rankings but not even the powerhouses of world soccer can match their form over the past two years.

On Saturday, they came from a goal down to beat the Czechs 2-1 in front of a joyous crowd at the Fadil Vokrri stadium in Kosovo’s capital Pristina and will head to Southampton on Tuesday just one point behind Gareth Southgate’s England side.

Incredibly for a nation only awarded FIFA status little over three years ago, along with Gibraltar, they are undefeated in 15 matches and have become the surprise challengers to England’s Group A domination.

Kosovo’s last defeat came against Iceland in October 2017 at the end of a chastening World Cup qualification programme in which they managed only one point from 10 matches but since then they have won 10 and drawn five of their matches.

Swiss coach Bernard Challandes’s side began their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign with draws against Bulgaria and Montenegro but then scored a last-gasp winner to beat Bulgaria 3-2 away in June and their defeat of the Czechs lifted them to eight points.

A nation that only declared independence in 2008 after decades of political struggle and a year-long war with Serbia from 1998-99 has taken huge pride in its soccer team and the dream of a place in its first finals is realistic.

Even if they fail to qualify directly, they have another backup option in the play-offs thanks to an impressive Nations League performance.

While their first steps into international football were difficult with nine successive defeats, Albert Bunjaki, Challandes’s predecessor, worked tirelessly trawling Europe’s Kosovan diaspora in search of eligible players.

Many had played for other nations after moving away as children to escape a conflict which eventually led to NATO’s bombing of the former Yugoslavia.

Challandes has reaped the benefit. Standard Liege defender Mergim Vojvoda, scorer of Kosovo’s winner on Saturday, played for Albania under-21s, while Swansea City’s attacking midfielder Bersant Celina grew up in Norway.

Celina represented the Nordic nation until under-21 level before switching when the door opened for Kosovo in 2016.

Torino’s Samir Ujkani, Kosovo’s goalkeeper and captain, has 20 senior caps for Albania, Lazio’s Valon Berisha played 20 times for Norway and Huddersfield Town’s Florent Hadergjonaj is a former Switzerland international.

Had Kosovo entered the international soccer stage sooner, it is not inconceivable that Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri, both Swiss internationals with Kosovar-Albanian parentage, could be lining up against England at St Mary’s.

With the side that played against the Czechs having an average age of only 23, Kosovo’s talented young squad are already being dubbed the “Brazil of the Balkans” by their fans.

“Time is working for our football, so we must move on with bravery, determination and pride until the dream comes true which is qualifying for Euro 2020,” Agim Ademi, head of Kosovo’s Football Federation, said after the win over the Czechs.

England have scored 14 goals in three matches but will need to guard against complacency against a fearless side determined to make their mark in what will be the biggest fixture in their short footballing history.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ian Chadband)