Kosovo are probably the most remarkable story in international football at the moment.
They face England in a Euro 2020 qualifier on Tuesday, and go into the game second in Group A, and on the Totally Football Show this week Jack Lang told us a little bit about how they have turned around their form.
“They only got FIFA approval in 2016, which along with Gibraltar makes them the youngest country on the international scene,” said Jack. “They were in World Cup qualifying but did awfully – they lost nine of their ten games, drawing the other, and it seemed like they were going to have a steep road to achieving anything in international football.
“Amazingly, since that World Cup qualifying campaign they’ve changed manager, and they’re unbeaten since. They haven’t lost in their last 14 matches, they’ve started the group really well, they’ve beaten Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
“I spoke to Elba Rashani, who score the winner against Bulgaria, and he said they’re not thinking they will overhaul England by any means, but there’s a lot of belief in that squad, it’s a young squad, the new manager has sorted the defence out.
“They’ve always had a lot of technically gifted forward players, and they just a little bit more organisation, and they’ve got that now. It’s really nice story: I don’t know whether they will be able to cope with England, but they look a really good bet to qualify, even if they don’t finish in the top two they’re guaranteed a playoff spot because of their Nations League campaign.”
Their big previous problem was that players with Kosovar origins would frequently play for other nations, but that has changed in the last couple of years, giving them a greater pool of players to choose from.
“The current manager, Bernard Challandes, is Swiss and he’s tactically brought it all together, but his predecessor, Albert Bunjaki, who lost all those games in World Cup qualifying, actually did a really good job behind the scenes.
“He travelled around Europe speaking to players of Kosovar origin who might previously have played for teams like Switzerland, a lot of guys in Scandinavia, Albania of course, and he basically just convinced those players ‘we’ve got something good going on here, it could be really special.’ The players feel they have a stronger connection to Kosovo than many other countries do, and that’s really united them.
“There’s talent there: a good example of someone who was convinced to play for them is Milot Rashica, who plays for Werder Bremen (injured at the moment), a really exciting attacking midfielder who in the past might have played elsewhere, but now he’s on board with it.”
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Read Jack Lang’s article for the Athletic about Kosovo’s rise here.