Albania’s under-21s have been drawn against Kosovo for the 2021 European Championship qualifiers in the first official encounter between the two neighboring Albanian-speaking countries since Kosovo’s 2016 admission as a UEFA and FIFA member.
Both Albania and Kosovo face a tough challenge in a qualifying group that features three tougher rivals such as England, Austria and Turkey and modest Andorra.
Albania and Kosovo will play their first Group 3 qualifier on Oct. 15, 2019 in what will be Albania’s fifth qualifier after opening their qualifying campaign on March 23 with a home fixture against Turkey.
The local ‘Albanian derby’ comes at a time when rivalry between the two national sides over picking players of Albanian roots has become tougher since 2016 after Kosovo was admitted as a full FIFA member and Kosovo’s senior national side wrote history in their debut Nations League campaign by claiming promotion to League C and standing another chance for qualification to the Euro 2020 final stage in case of failing to make it through the traditional qualifiers format.
Albania’s senior and U21 national sides feature several players of Kosovo roots, but Albania’s lackluster performances following the major France 2016 appearance and Kosovo in better shape during the past year, have made the Albanian national side no longer a top choice for many key players of Kosovo roots with rivalry over top talents of ethnic Albanian roots getting tougher.
Not hiding rivalry, Albania’s U21 coach Alban Bushi considers the qualifier as a game that has to be won, the same like every other group stage qualifier.
“I received Kosovo like every other team, we will try hard. There are three or four players who said they would be joining us, but then changed their mind and picked Kosovo. It was their choice,” says 45-year-old Bushi, a former Albanian international.
“The encounter against Kosovo will be tough, like with every other team. It’s like the other teams and it has to be won,” Bushi has told a local sports portal.
Albania’s U21s who also feature several players of ethnic Albanian Kosovo and Macedonian roots take to the Euro 2021 qualifiers following a disappointing campaign for the Euro 2018 qualifiers as they finished second from bottom in a tough group stage led by Spain
Kosovo’s U21 coach Rafet Prekazi says he considers the special fixture a brotherly encounter that has to be played professionally.
“Of course we are brothers, but now we are two separate teams and the players and I consider this only a football match,” Prekazi has told Kosovo media.
Kosovo’s U21 also take to the Euro 2021 qualifiers after finishing second from bottom in their debut Euro qualifiers in a tough group stage led by Germany, but collecting five points more compared to Albania.
The last time the two U21 national sides played each other was at a January 2016 friendly that ended in a 1-1 draw.
Meanwhile, the last time the two senior national sides faced each other was in a friendly in late May 2018 when Kosovo thrashed Albania 3-0 in a local derby that saw tough rivalry on the pitch.
Nine group winners plus co-hosts Hungary and Slovenia directly qualify for U21 Euro 2021 while the two best runners-up advance to the play-offs for a final spot.
The Albania U21s will play their first leg encounter against England on Nov. 15, 2019.
The U-21 Euro 2021 qualifiers take place between March 2019 and October 2020, with the 2019 schedule corresponding to Albania’s senior national side’s Euro 2020 qualifying campaign against France, Iceland and Turkey.
Rivalry over senior talents
Almost half of Albania’s senior national side’s 24 men 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.
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 at the German Bundesliga, left Albania for Kosovo, marking the first talent row between the two neighboring countries.
Kosovo’s Swiss 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, said earlier this year ahead of an Albania-Kosovo friendly.
Meanwhile, Albania’s Italian coach Christian Panucci says rivalry is not only with Kosovo but also with Switzerland, where dozens of players of Albanian roots play.
“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,” Panucci has earlier said.
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 a Euro 2016 final group stage fixture when debutant Albania played Switzerland.