Pristina (AFP) - Kosovo still hopes to reach a first European finals at Euro 2020 but has laid on the warmest of welcomes for England, their opponents on the pitch on Sunday but hailed as an ally over its role in the 1990s independence war.
After a 2-1 defeat against Czech Republic on Thursday, the newcomer on the European football scene can no longer qualify for the tournament through the group stage.
However, Kosovo will be in the play-offs next March having progressed through the Nations League, so the dream of reaching its first major tournament finals is still alive.
With England already qualified after thrashing Montenegro 7-0 on Thursday, Sunday's match has little significance but nevertheless authorities and fans in the former Serbian province are gearing up to welcome their visitors.
Banners throughout the capital Pristina proclaim "Welcome and Respect" for England in a territory where a number of young people are named after Tony Blair in a tribute to the former British prime minister.
"Thanks to you we now play against you! Forever grateful to you our beloved England!" read another banner in Pristina.
Blair and US president Bill Clinton were the leading advocates of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in response to its late president Slobodan Milosevic's conflict with pro-independence ethnic Albanians.
A decade after the 1998-1999 conflict Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, a move recognised by more than 100 countries, including the United States, Britain and most European Union member states.
"The most important is to receive them and to respect them as they are our friend. We are lucky for having such a friend," 29-year old economist Labinot Ajvazi said. "Let the best team win."
Some 15,000 tickets were sold out in hours on Tuesday.
A giant screen has been erected on the main Zahir Pajaziti square in Pristina for all those unable to be at the Fadil Vokrri stadium to enjoy the game.
- Impressive -
The Dardanians, as Kosovo fans call themselves, have promised a "magnificent reception" for England's players and supporters, said one fan, actor Fatmir Spahiu.
The breakaway territory of some two million people, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians, only became a member of FIFA and UEFA in 2016, despite fierce opposition from Serbia.
Kosovo has impressed lately as the team coached by Switzerland's Bernard Challandes managed 15 games without defeat before falling 5-3 to England last September – until losing to the Czechs that was its only defeat in all of 2018 and 2019.
Kosovo will be handicapped on Sunday as Vedat Muriqi, who plays for Turkish club Fenerbahce, is absent due to injury as he was against the Czechs.
"There is no player who can replace him," the coach admitted.
- "Welcome bro" -
"England coming to play in Kosovo is something big, historic," said Atdhe Nuhiu, who scored for Kosovo in Plzen. The match has special significance for the striker because he plays for English Championship club Sheffield Wednesday.
"We will celebrate in Pristina that Kosovo, with its history and as small as it is, is standing and will be playing England."
"Our country has received much support from England in many aspects," supporter Vjosa Berisha said.
"England's role as a country in liberating the people of Kosovo from Serbia's repressive regime in 1999 has been instrumental," the president of Kosovo's football association Agim Ademi said.
He ruled out the possibility that England players would face racist abuse from spectators. Their qualifier in Bulgaria in October was twice halted because of racist comments.
"Players from both teams at the end will leave the field supported by spectators, whatever the outcome."
Echoing his words, a clothing store in the centre of Pristina put a giant banner with a picture of Raheem Sterling, the Manchester City star, with an inscription reading "Miresevjen broo (Welcome bro)."