Fadil Vokrri (right) is considered the best footballer Kosovo has ever produced

Fadil Vokrri (right) is considered the best footballer Kosovo has ever produced

It was September 2016 when Kosovo played their first competitive international football match.

On Saturday, they extended an unbeaten run to 15 games with possibly their most significant result yet – a 2-1 home victory over the Czech Republic. It is the longest such run in Europe.

Kosovo already have a very good chance of reaching Euro 2020. And their next qualifier is against England on Tuesday (19:45 BST). They are relishing the prospect.

his country of about 1.8 million people campaigned for eight years before being admitted as Fifa and Uefa members in 2016. The process began immediately after its declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008. Some countries – including Serbia – still do not recognise its right to exist.

That such a young and troubled nation from the heart of the Balkans should shine on football’s biggest stages was not the dream of only one man. But there is one figure who is revered here above all others – and his story helps explain the origins of this special team.

He was crucial to Kosovo’s campaign for recognition as a football nation, and is a hero in his country. After his death last year at the age of 57, the national team’s home ground was renamed in his honour: The Fadil Vokrri Stadium.

Like so many people here, Vokrri’s life was marked by the war that still raged in this region only just over 20 years ago. By the bitter cycle of vengeance and counter-vengeance, and the tensions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs that still exist today.

And yet Vokrri was one of very few – perhaps the only one – able to communicate across the deep divides that cost so many lives. Football was his language.

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