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Soccer-Kosovo rue lost generation as talent search begins

Reuters

* Kosovo allowed to play friendly internationals

* First game planned for March 5

* Six years since independence from Serbia

By Fatos Bytyci

PRISTINA, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Football fans in Kosovo began tailoring a 'dream team' for their national side when FIFA last week ruled the young Balkan country could play friendly matches for the first time since breaking away from Serbia.

First on the team sheet was Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj, then Xherdan Shaqiri of Bayern Munich, Napoli's Valon Behrami and Granit Xhaka of Borussia Monchengladbach - each of them tracing their origins to this small corner of Europe.

But after years spent in a sporting wilderness, when football was held hostage to big-power politics, Kosovo's best and brightest have long since chosen to represent the European nations that took them in as their families fled the poverty and violence of the Balkans in the 1990s.

Kosovo may finally be on the world soccer map, but it has lost a generation in footballing talent.

"We will be careful not to call players involved with other national teams at the moment," said Eroll Salihu, the general secretary of Kosovo's Football Association, referring to the likes of Shaqiri who now represents Switzerland.

"We don't want to get in the way because they are busy with the World Cup and other international competitions.

"But once Kosovo becomes a full UEFA and FIFA member, it will be our moral obligation to open the doors to players who were either born here or have Kosovo origins."

Recognised by more than 100 countries since its 2008 declaration of independence, Kosovo is still establishing itself as a sovereign state.

Serbia's resistance to the secession of what was once its southern province means Kosovo has yet to win a seat at the United Nations, and membership of many international organisations for which a U.N. seat is a precondition.

FIFA is among them.

Striking a compromise, the footballing body ruled last week that Kosovo may play friendly internationals, without national symbols or the Kosovo national anthem. Nor will it be able to play against any of the other six countries to emerge from the ashes of federal Yugoslavia.

Predominantly ethnic Albanian, Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 1999 when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to drive out Serbian forces and halt a wave of ethnic cleansing during a counter-insurgency war. It spent almost a decade in limbo as a ward of the United Nations.

Now, Kosovo is eying its first international friendly in March, with the Faroe Islands, Ghana and Jamaica among the potential opponents.

ISOLATION

National coach Albert Bunjaku said the country's first major goal was to play in the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

"I am focused on having good players but I am aware that the first game will be one to break the isolation," he said.

"The team will be based mainly on new players as well as some experienced exiles ready to join us instantly, while our objective is the 2018 World Cup."

Jerome Champagne, who this week declared his intention to run for the FIFA presidency next year, has been working as an independent consultant to the Kosovo FA to bring the country back into the international soccer fold and was delighted with the friendlies go-ahead.

"For the last 15 years they have felt isolated, not wanted and forgotten, but that is changing. They feel as though they belong again," Champagne said.

"Kosovo has a long soccer history and many players in and around Europe are proud of their roots back to the country.

"Of course Januzaj could play for them and it was noticeable that when Bayern Munich won the Champions League last May Shaqiri held two flags tied together: Switzerland, who he plays for - and Kosovo where he comes from."

Januzaj has yet to pick a national side, with Belgium, Albania and England all reportedly in the hunt. Albania's Italian coach, Gianni De Biasi, said this week he had tried in vein to reach the 19-year-old's father, Abedin.

"I find it easier to get in touch with Pope Francis than Abedin Januzaj," he told Albanian television.

There is still a long way to go before Kosovo can become a fully fledged member of UEFA or FIFA.

Champagne said FIFA's decision was a huge step in the right direction, but many sportsmen and women from Kosovo have already chosen to move abroad and compete for their adopted countries.

Those who stayed face humble conditions.

The only soccer stadium in the capital, Pristina, has a capacity of just 16,000. Water leaks in the corridors and many of the plastic seats are broken.

The Rasunda stadium in Sweden, host of the 1958 World Cup final when Brazil beat Sweden 5-2, has donated second-hand seating and lighting, but they have yet to be installed.

Kushtrim Mushica, goalkeeper for Pristina FC, trains daily at the stadium. He said he had turned down several offers to play abroad, partly because some countries still do not recognise his Kosovo passport.

He said he hoped to win a call-up for the new national side.

"I met many good players here but they vanished because of isolation and bad conditions," Mushica said. "However, FIFA's decision is an open door to us that we never had before." (Additional reporting by Benet Koleka in Tirana, Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade, Michael Collett in London; Editing by Matt Robinson)

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