Albania play Kosovo in derby amid growing rivalry over new talents

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 29, 2018 11:19

Albania play Kosovo in derby amid growing rivalry over new talents

Story Highlights

  • “What’s for sure is that in the end, it is the player who decides. My fight is not between Switzerland and Kosovo, the war is maybe between Albania and Kosovo,” says Benard Challandes, Kosovo’s Swiss coach

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TIRANA, May 29 - Albania will take on Kosovo on Tuesday night in a friendly which is an all-Albanian derby but amid growing rivalry over which national side players of Kosovo roots should pick.

Half of Albania’s national side’s 24-man are of Kosovo-Albanian roots, and there are also players who were born in Switzerland, making them eligible to play for three national sides with Switzerland often coming as the first choice, followed by Albania and Kosovo.

Rivalry between Albania and Kosovo has been tough after Kosovo’s 2016 admission as full UEFA and FIFA member and some players leaving Albania to play for the Kosovo national side which played their debut World Cup qualifying campaign. Rivalry continues in bringing new talents, with players of Kosovo origin often in dilemma whether to join Albania or Kosovo although best players often end up with Albania.

In August 2016, soon after Kosovo was admitted as a FIFA member, three players of Kosovo roots, among whom Milot Rashica, a current Werder Bremen attacking midfielder, left Albania for Kosovo, marking the first talent row between the two neighboring countries.

Kosovo’s new coach, Bernard Challandes  says rivalry with Albania over convincing players of Kosovo roots to play for Kosovo is a big problem for him and faces fierce competition with Albania and their Italian coach Christian Panucci.

“Competition with Albania is not a small problem for me. Both Panucci and I are aware about this and try hard about good players,” Challandes, an experienced Swiss coach, has told a portal focused on Albanians in Switzerland.

“For me as Kosovo's coach, it is important to do anything to convince players to play for Kosovo and not Albania, especially for players in Switzerland and Panucci does the same thing,” he adds.

Switzerland’s national side features several key players of Kosovo-Albanian roots and those who are not called up by the Switzerland usually face a dilemma whether to join the new Kosovo national side or more experienced Albania who in 2016 made their debut appearance at a major international competition such as Euro 2016.

The Xhaka brothers are unique in Europe with the younger Arsenal playmaker and Swiss international Granit Xhaka and his elder Basel and Albanian international player becoming Europe’s first two brothers to face each other in the Euro 2016 group stage fixture when debutant Albania played Switzerland.

“However, what's for sure is that in the end it is the player who decides. My fight is not between Switzerland and Kosovo, the war is maybe between Albania and Kosovo,” says Challandes, a former Armenia coach.

Last March Kosovo beat modest Madagascar and Burkina Faso in two friendlies following their debut World Cup qualifiers where they only managed to get an away draw to Finland.

Speaking about the friendly with Albania, the Kosovo coach says the atmosphere is very positive and brotherly.

“Of course this is a brothers' fight. I was a bit surprised as a Swiss at the beginning, and I thought it's a bit different, but I have seen that Kosovo lives with Albania and I can't tell whether I am in Kosovo or Albania. Kosovo played their qualifiers in Albania and that shows that Kosovo and Albania co-exist perfectly.   It's a preparatory game and we will play against a better and more experienced team that also made it to the European Championship,” says the Kosovo coach.

Lacking a stadium that meets standards, Kosovo have been playing their home qualifiers in Shkodra’s Loro Borici stadium, northern Albania.

The last time Albania and Kosovo played each other was in November 2015 after Albania secured a historic first-ever Euro 2016 appearance. Played in Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital, the game ended in a 2-2 draw, in celebration of the historic achievement for Albanian football.


A friendly test

Albania’s Italian coach Christian Panucci says rivalry is not only with Kosovo but also with Switzerland.

“As far as talents are concerned, Albanians are divided into three countries and I have my scouts with whom I try to follow everybody. Then, if I see good elements, I introduce them with the call to join Albania, but the choice is in their hand,” says Panucci.

“It's a friendly and both the Kosovo coach and I target experimenting and get as good signals as possible ahead of the Nations League campaign,” adds Panucci.

Speaking about the players who have not been called up, Panucci says it's up to them to send signals of improvement and a better shape in order to call them up.

Albania is heading to the Kosovo and Ukraine friendlies with several key changes in their 24-man squad, heralding a new era following the national side historic 2016 appearance under former Albania coach Gianni De Biasi.

Having been sidelined by their clubs for most of the season, striker Armando Sadiku and midfielder Ledian Memushaj are two of the key players who have been left out for the two upcoming friendlies against Kosovo and Ukraine.

Coach Panucci has opted to test new Albanian Superliga talents for the offensive line and called up 21-year-old striker Kristal Abazaj and 24-year-old forward Sindrit Guri, both of whom will be playing for Belgian top league clubs Anderlecht and Oostende next season.

Egzon Binaku, a Sweden-born player of Kosovo-Albanian origin, is the surprise name on Panucci’s list.

Albania’s second friendly will be on June 3 against Ukraine, a much tougher national side whom Albania have only managed to get a draw and lost four times in World Cup qualifiers and friendlies in the past two decades.

The two friendlies are considered key ahead of next September’s start of the Nations League campaign against Israel and Scotland and the upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers.

“I think we have done a good job but still have a lot to do to be ready for the Nations League. I want to finish first in that competition and we have all the strength to achieve that,” says Panucci.

The former Italian Real Madrid and AC Milan defender with not much coaching experience has been in charge of Albania since mid-2017. The 44-year-old Italian has led Albania in six games, winning a World Cup qualifier against modest Liechtenstein and a friendly against Turkey, but losing to European superpowers Spain and Italy and drawing against neighboring Macedonia in World Cup qualifiers and most recently against Norway in a friendly.


Albania - Kosovo

Tuesday 29 May 2018

Stadion Letzigrund - Zurich; 20:00


Albania - Ukraine

Sunday, June 3

Evian, France; 20:00


Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 29, 2018 11:19