Bersant Celina wants to be a pioneer. That is why he has chosen to play for Kosovo, the country of his birth, over Norway, where he grew up. Kosovo have never even played a competitive match, but Celina still dreams of captaining them in a World Cup. And why not?
That is just part of his ambitious vision. The slight 19-year-old is on the brink of another more immediate breakthrough. Tomorrow he is likely to make his first senior start for Manchester City, in the FA Cup fifth round tie against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Manuel Pellegrini will play a young side, given City’s long Champions League trip to Kiev next week.
He was born in September 1996 in Prizren in Kosovo, 20 minutes from the Albanian border. With war imminent in 1998, his mother Mimoza took the infant Bersant – he does not remember this – and older brother Behajdin to Norway. They settled in Drammen, in a large Kosovan immigrant community, where they were joined by young Bersant’s father Eduar two months later. Many of his cousins stayed at home.
Celina grew up speaking Norwegian at school and Albanian at home, playing football for “five or six hours” every evening with the other Kosovan boys nearby. He loved watching Premier League football on television and always wanted to play here.
“I grew up in Norway and always wanted to play for Norway,” he says. It was when he was playing for Norway Under-16s that City first saw him. He still feels Norwegian, and speaks it with his agent, Freddie Akehurst, of Impact Sports Management.
But in 2008 Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. In 2012 Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami and Granit Xhaka, all Kosovans playing for Switzerland, wrote to Fifa arguing that Kosovo should be allowed to play international matches. Fifa eventually agreed. So, in March 2014 the new nation played its first officially sanctioned friendly, against Haiti in Mitrovice. A new opportunity opened for the 17-year-old Celina, one that he had not anticipated. For that first game, he was on the bench.
Kosovo are close to being accepted as full members of Uefa and Fifa, at their annual congresses in May. If they are, they can play competitive games and will be part of the qualification process for the 2018 World Cup.
Most of the Kosovo team is like Celina, brought up in Norway, Sweden or Switzerland. Not many of them are as good as Celina is, though, with much Kosovan talent still being lost to other countries. The Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj, whose parents are Kosovan, declared for Belgium in 2014, just before Kosovo’s first game.