There were, according to official sources, 20,000 Kosovans expected in Southampton for the game against England and only 10,000 among them with tickets – an international away support like no other. They had certainly come to support their team, currently on a 15-game unbeaten run and fresh from victory over the Czech Republic on Saturday, but they also have a deep affection for British football and the British in general.
Kristian Gashi, 30, a Kosovo supporter who was in the United Kingdom for the first time from his home in Austria was asking a BBC crew if he could display his banner in the back of their live broadcast for the 6pm news. Thanks to you we now play against you, it read. Forever grateful to you, our beloved England. Gashi came from the Kosovan city of Ferizaj and wanted to explain why Britains role in the Nato intervention in the Balkan war of 1998 to 1999 meant so much.
Live blog and match highlights: European Championship qualifying – England v Kosovo at St. Marys Stadium, Southampton
I experienced the war and I never thought that in such a short space of time we would be here, playing football in a stadium, he said. We are playing against the most traditional football nation. I will always be thankful to England and what they did for my country. They intervened in the extermination of our people. Then they helped us later on for our team to be recognised in sport.
Kosovo were only admitted to Uefa and Fifa in 2016 and this is their second qualifying campaign for a major tournament. Weve been through a lot, Gashi said, this is just a joyful experience.
Genuinely uplifting to speak to the Kosovo fans at St Marys, an away support who are thrilled to be here. Remarkably there are 20,000 expected in Southampton pic.twitter.com/uvFi9DCF7r
Rimor Arifi, 26, from Pristina, has a picture on his phone of a British solider in full fatigues playing football in the street with Kosovan children. He had come over for the game and to visit family. This was 20 years ago this picture was taken and now here we are playing England, he said, its incredible. Arifi said his cousin had hoped to meet Tony Blair this week and offer to take him to the game.
The former Prime Minister regarded as a hero in Kosovo for his part in the Nato intervention and famously has a generation of children named after him. I know about 20 kids called Tonibler, Arifi said.
Luan Zeka, 55, and his son Jon, 19, had come from west London for the game. Jon was born in London one year after his family moved from Pristina and although they would ordinarily support England, this was a different proposition. We never thought we would see this day, said Leka. We can remember when there wasnt even a country.
His son Jon said that for Kosovans in the UK in particular this was a momentous day. I was born here, I was able to go to school here. We wont be disappointed if we dont win. Football is just a sport at the end of the day.
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