No country without a team taking part in the 2020 Uefa European Championship is following the tournament quite as passionately as Albania, who you can argue are the 25th team in the showpiece. This is because there are nine footballers of Albanian ethnicity or origin in the squads of Switzerland and North Macedonia.
If we broaden the scope to European national teams who aren’t at this year’s Euros, you’ll find ethnic Albanian footballers in Kosovo, a state born in 2008 and inhabited almost completely by Albanians, and Montenegro, whose current vice-captain is Kosovo-born ethnic Albanian Fatos Beqiraj. Ethnic Albanian footballers such as Panagiotis Kone have also played for Greece, whose northwestern region of Chameria once housed many more Albanians than those living there today.
Four out of the five aforementioned states border Albania and Albanians have lived in them for centuries. But the de facto separation from the motherland dates back to the 1913 Treaty of London that followed the First Balkan War. It delineated the borders of Albania and its neighbours, leaving many Albanians outside the country and partitioning them predominantly between North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia – which until 2008 included Kosovo as an autonomous region – and Greece.
As for Switzerland, it hosts one of the largest Albanian diasporas, particularly from Kosovo. Emigration to Switzerland began in the 1960s for work and intensified following the 1998-1999 Kosovo war fought by the forces of what was left of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) and the Kosovo Albanian rebel group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army. At the 2016 European Championships, the Swiss national team counted six ethnic Albanian footballers.
The multi-ethnic conformation of the Balkans creates paradoxical situations in which players of the same ethnicity find themselves facing each other when representing their national teams, as happened in the semifinal of the 2018-2019 Uefa Nations League’s Path D between North Macedonia and Kosovo.
Brother vs brother
This has caused situations where members of the same family, some born in the same country, choose to represent different national teams. The most iconic case is that of the Xhaka brothers, Granit and Taulant, both born in Switzerland to Kosovo-born ethnic Albanian parents. Granit chose Switzerland, while Taulant opted to play for Albania after playing in all the Swiss youth national team setups. They faced each other at the 2016 European Championship. There is also their younger cousin Agon, who chose Kosovo, which makes it three Xhakas playing for three different national teams.
As for Taulant, it was Granit who convinced his older brother to choose Albania so that he didn’t make the same mistake as him. “Granit was already playing for [FC] Basel, a great team in Switzerland. It wasn’t him who had to insist [to play for Albania],” says Mario Cenolli, Granit Xhaka’s friend and a member of his entourage. “Through his father, he had made it known that he was ready to play for Albania, but Albania ignored him. Switzerland then took an interest and convinced him, also with the prospect of being able to compete in European [Championship] and World Cups.”
At the time Granit opted to play for Switzerland, international football governing body Fifa and Uefa did not recognise the Kosovo national team. This only happened in 2016, with Fifa going as far as to allow players of Kosovan descent to change national teams, even in cases where they had already debuted in the senior national team of another country, which is against Fifa rules.
“It wouldn’t have been right [for Granit] to switch [to Kosovo]. He had already made history with Switzerland, of which today he’s captain,” points out Cenolli. “If you take a closer look, the players who changed their sporting nationality to play for Kosovo aren’t well known. No great player made the switch. Despite this, no one can question Granit’s love for Kosovo and Albania. In football, he represents another country, but in his heart there is always Albania.”
Granit Xhaka addressed this in a letter to Kosovans. “Believe me, if it were just my decision, I would be without the slightest doubt where you want me,” he wrote in 2016.
He went on to say that nobody should doubt his family’s love for Albania, as “my brother plays to the sound of the [Albanian] national anthem and the waving of the red and black flag, for which thousands of Albanians fought and sacrificed their lives over the centuries.”
Cenolli is against all the people who call Granit a traitor. “He was born and raised in Switzerland, but he asked to be allowed to play for Albania and was refused. Why does he have to be a traitor? People don’t know what happened and they take stock. Xhaka is more Albanian than some Albanians living in Albania.”
The danger of politics
“Fans expect the national team to be represented by Albanians from all sides, as was the case at the 2016 European Championship,” adds Ermal Kuka, an Albanian sports journalist. “Today, many of the players who opted for other national teams would choose Albania or Kosovo. But sometimes there are bureaucratic obstacles or professional decisions in between.”
Each case is different and the reasons behind the choice may vary, depending on the personal situation of the player, on whether he was raised in their country of origin or not, on what generation he belongs to and therefore on the intensity of the bond generated with that country.
“Honestly, once I chose Albania I didn’t want to change any more, because I had made my decision and wanted to stick to it,” says Azdren Llullaku, a Kosovo-born Albanian who plays for Romanian club CS Concordia Chiajna. “If Kosovo had also been there in 2013, maybe I would have chosen Kosovo. But this issue is very delicate and difficult. I should have lived this moment to give an answer. Following my feelings, I believe I would have chosen Kosovo because, considering everything that has happened in the past [with the oppression under Yugoslavia and the war], helping Kosovo would have been the right choice at that time.”
Agim Ibraimi, an ethnic Albanian North Macedonian footballer who plays for FC Kukësi in Albania, says: “I was born and raised in [North] Macedonia and I always played for the [North] Macedonian youth selections. I don’t want to mix politics with football. Football has the power to unite, so we shouldn’t look at where we are from. We need to be professional players and give our best for the national team we play for as it happens in every football club.”
Ibraimi underlines the sensitivity of the topic, which often goes beyond football. “We have to be very careful when dealing with this issue, because this is often mixed with politics. Some journalists often manipulate players’ quotes for clickbaiting. Once I had to publish a post on my social networks to deny a statement of mine that had appeared in the newspapers.”
If finding footballers of the same ethnicity in different national teams is something common throughout Africa, the case of Kosovo and Albania is perhaps unique. They are two neighbouring states almost entirely populated by Albanians, in which the same language is spoken (with some normal regional differences) and the same traditions are shared. “With Kosovo it’s something special,” says Kuka. “The friendlies we played against them were brotherhood matches in which everyone cheers for everyone and just wants to enjoy the best that Albanian football can produce.”
Despite this “brotherhood”, it wasn’t smooth sailing for players who switched allegiances. “At first glance, it was terrible. The Albanian players who switched to Kosovo have been pilloried on social media,” says Kuka. “Then, over time, people have shrugged everything off and if now an Albanian footballer decides to represent Kosovo, it doesn’t make a fuss.”
The strong bond that binds these nations is tested in certain incidents. “There is a ‘clash’ between them, because they are obviously looking for more or less the same players,” says Kuka. “And Kosovo doesn’t want to be the academy of Albania. They don’t like the Albanian FA to contact Kosovar players. After all, for us [who live in Albania], they are all Albanians. Many people from Skopje and Prishtina [the capital cities of North Macedonia and Kosovo] come to Albania to attend our national team’s matches.”
But regardless of which nation they represent, most players of Albanian descent love the country. “Before the 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifiers matches between North Macedonia and Albania, ethnic Albanians who played for North Macedonia sang the Albanian national anthem,” says Kuka. “Leeds United’s Ezgjan Alioski said he was very touched.”
Schalke 04 defender Shkodran Mustafi made the two-handed gesture that signifies the double-headed eagle on Albania’s flag after he won the 2014 World Cup with Germany. Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka did the same when they scored against Serbia at the 2018 World Cup. The gesture is also associated with Albanian ethnicity as Albanians call themselves Shqiptar (son of eagle) and their country Shqipëri (land of eagles).
It’s no wonder that Albania is following this tournament with such keen interest. The bond that binds it with players of Albanian descent is never severed, regardless of what national team jersey they wear.