How football helps build bridges in Kosovo

Fifteen years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, ethnic tensions remain high. However, a UN project is helping bring Serb and ethnic Albanian girls together, on the football pitch.

On a cold and foggy day in Brezovica, a mountain village not far from Prizren in southern Kosovo, a group of girls file into the local sports hall to get ready for football practice. This is a rare sight, as football is still regarded by many in Kosovo as strictly a man’s game.

But what is really extraordinary is that these girls are from both Serb and ethnic Albanian families.

Aurora Cakolli, 14, is among the members of KFV Prishtina, who have made the 80 kilometer-journey (50 miles) from the capital to Brezovica. They’ve come here to train, before playing a match against FC Brezovica in the neighboring village of Strpce. Brezovica and Strpce are two of the few large Serbian communities in southern Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are in the majority. Serbian is the language of instruction in the schools here, while Aurora is taught in Albanian back in Pristina.

However, there is no language barrier for these football players, as they communicate in English. The two groups share both a passion for football and an interest in learning about each other. After all, the opportunities for girls to play football in Kosovo are few and far between.

“It’s difficult to be a female football player in Kosovo,” Aurora confirms. “I played for a boys’ team until I found out about KFV Prishtina.”

Empowerment through football

In Kosovo, there is no organized football for girls under the age of 17, which is part of the reason the United Nations (UN) launched this project, which aims to give younger girls more opportunities to play while at the same time breaking down ethnic barriers.

“This project is the only opportunity there is for girls under 17 to play football,” says Armenda Filipaj, the founder of KFV Prishtina.

“Empowerment through football is very important in our country, especially as girls from all ethnic groups take part through these teams.”

Under the UN project, five clubs have been established so far, two Albanian, two Serbian and one Goran. The Gorans are a Slavic-Islamic minority from southwestern Kosovo. The project’s $24,000-budget (€22,375) has gone to pay for jerseys and cover the costs of hiring coaches, referees and transportation.

Given the fact that there are few decent artificial turf pitches in Kosovo, the girls often have to travel long distances for the game they love. However, Armenda Filipaj always manages to find somewhere for her girls to train and play.

International flavor

“I love football and I’m happy to have such good training and playing opportunities,” says 14-year-old Jana Simanovic, one of the FC Brezovica players, before the match against KFV Prishtina. The Serb team is clad in yellow, while their ethnic Albanian opponents wear blue. The jerseys of both teams bear the logo of the United Nations.

They are among the more than 170 girls playing football as part of the project. Given their differing ethnic backgrounds, the games between these teams have something of an international flair. There’s no mistaking the fact that both teams are out there to win, as evidenced by the animated gesturing of the two coaches on the sidelines. But before kickoff, the high-fives between the players are an indication that such games are also about breaking down barriers. Even an odd personal friendship has blossomed.

All about football

“Today’s training and friendly match with Pristina is something special, because we are aware of where we live and the way things are right now,” says FC Brezovica coach Zvonko Staletovic. “For us, it’s all about football, nothing else.”

To understand just how deep the divisions generally are between the ethnic groups, it helps to bear in mind how football is organized here. In the rest of country, no Serb can be a member of a Kosovar team or the sports federation. Kosovar sports are organized exclusively by Kosovo Albanians.

“There were initiatives to bring in players from the Serb minority,” Taulant Hodaj, secretary general of the Kosovo Football Federation (KFF), tells DW.

“There were Serbs who wanted to play for Kosovo, but unfortunately there was political pressure from Serbia that prevented male and female players from participating in competitions organized by the Kosovo Football Federation.”

The KFF became a member of FIFA and UEFA in May 2016, despite Belgrade’s best efforts to keep it out. Serbia’s objections were ultimately rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. However, Serbia, which sees Kosovo as a breakaway province, has been able to keep the country out of political associations such as the UN, due to the veto power of its close ally, Russia.

While the international football federations did welcome Kosovo into their ranks, they were anything but blind to the potential problems that lingering ethnic resentment could bring. Therefore, FIFA and UEFA have adopted rules designed to prevent Kosovo from being drawn against Serbia or Bosnia-Herzegovina in international competitions such as the Euros, World Cup qualifiers or the UEFA Nations League.

A model for the future?

The girls in Strpce are far removed from such divisions. What counts for them is the opportunity to pursue their passion for football, and getting to know each other. As a result, many have learned that they have much more in common than just their love for the beautiful game.

“It would be nice to play football together every day and then enjoy the rest of the day together,” says Jana Simanovic, a Kosovo Serb who dreams of one day playing in international tournaments.

She hopes that her example and those of the other girls will set a precedent. More opportunities for young Serbs and Kosovo Albanians to play football together can only help reduce political tensions in this still bitterly-divided nation.

This article was adapted from German.

Author: Vjosa Cerkini

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