It’s just football, some say, but for Kosovo, one match means so much more than that.
Not only can Thursday’s game in Skopje take Kosovo a step closer to the re-scheduled Euro 2020 but it is also being seen as a chance for the Kosovar people to stand up and be noticed as an independent country.
Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, meet neighbouring North Macedonia in the Euro play-off semi-finals, knowing that victory in Skopje will edge them closer to a place at sport’s top table for the first time.
“I live for our flag to be raised among the 24 flags of the best nations in Europe,” said 23-year-old psychology student Besart Morina.
The game has been dubbed by the media as “the most important match in Kosovo’s history”, and even head coach, 69-year old Bernard Challandes sees the Skopje showdown as “not just a football game”.
“We are in the new country of Kosovo and the football team is so important for the people,” the Swiss-born boss said in a press conference.
Sports are a frequent arena for tensions with Serbia. The scars still run deep after the bitter war between the two which ran from February 1998 to June 1999.
The Serbs attempted to block Kosovo from joining UEFA and FIFA in 2016 but their failure on that score makes the Kosovars the newest side in the qualifiers.
The fact that none of the 24 players selected for the match play in the domestic league is a remnant of Kosovo’s violent past — a majority of the squad are descendants from ethnic Albanian refugees that fled the violent regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic during 1990s.
A lot of the players born after the bloody conflict started their careers scattered from Sweden to Swizerland, but opted to play for the yellow-and-blues.
Some of them are good enough to play in Europe’s top leagues. Captain Amir Rrahmani is at Napoli while Samir Ujkani and Mërgim Vojvoda both play for Torino.
Another in Serie A is Lazio’s Vedat Muriqi — he is in the squad for Skopje although a recent positive Covid-19 test makes him a doubtful starter.
Others play in the France’s Ligue 1, the Dutch Eredivisie or Germany’s Bundesliga.
“A lot of players got good contracts, but they must never forget their roots and what it means to play in the Kosovo shirt,” said Challandes.
The European newcomers struggled during qualifying for 2018 World Cup, scoring only three goals and recording just a single point — a 1-1 draw in Finland — in 10 matches.
Despite being labelled as outsiders in Euro qualifiers, Kosovo were a revelation.
They put together a remarkable 15-game unbeaten run, including friendlies, before falling to England 5-3 in September 2019. But they finished third in their group, ahead of Bulgaria and Montenegro, to secure their place in the play-off.
“Challandes brought sustainability. He unified them with discipline and self-confidence,” said Eroll Salihu, secretary general of the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK).
However, the side travel to Skopje plagued with fitness issues, as four of the squad are expected to miss the game through injury.
The coronavirus has also affected fitness levels with some players not having played since before lockdown.
“We have waited more than two years for this match, and now we are in this situation,” said Challandes.
“We don’t have a lot of alternative options.”
The historic match will only be played about 100 kilometres (62 miles) from Kosovo’s capital Pristina but because of of the virus no fans will be allowed into the stadium.
Kosovo also face a determined opponent — North Macedonia have waited 30 years to get this far.
“We will give everthing to work out their weaknesses so we can win,” said North Macedonian forward Vlatko Stojanovski.
But Kosovars are proud of their national team no matter what happens. Posters of the players are dotted around the streets in the bars and the shops are packed with replica kits.
Arsim Mehana, a 41-year-old taxi driver, told AFP the team was doing more for the international standing of the country than all the politicians.
“They are young but better and contribute more to our recognition on the international stage than our diplomats,” he said.
If Kosovo win on Thursday they will still have one more hurdle before they reach the Euros — a play-off final against either Georgia or Belarus.