Kosovo players beat clock to play debut World Cup qualifier
HELSINKI: Amid last-minute confusion about which players are eligible to play for Kosovo, soccer's newest national team started its first World Cup qualifier convincingly with a 1-1 draw against Finland, which has tried to reach the finals 18 times before.
They pressed hard from the beginning on the Finns' home turf with nifty footwork and quick passes in front of a capacity crowd in the southwestern city of Turku.
Bernard Berisha had Kosovo's first attempt on goal, six minutes into the game and Leart Paqarada hit the post three minutes later.
But it was Finland which scored first, when forward Paulus Arajuuri was left unmarked to turn in a corner in the 17th minute.
Kosovo kept up the pressure, eventually equalizing on the hour mark with Valon Berisha striking a penalty past Luka Hradecky, Eintracht Frankfurt's goalkeeper.
Mehmet Hetemaj, a naturalized Finn of Kosovar Albanian descent, who has played on Finland's national team, described the Kosovans as "hungrier."
"They really wanted to win. They were there to win," he said.
Kosovan President Hashim Thaci, who watched the game from the Turku grounds, said the team "felt like winners."
"You are the best. You will win. You are the new heroes of Kosovo," he said.
The buildup to the evening's game was wrought with confusion as FIFA kept the Kosovo team guessing about who would be allowed to represent the tiny country in its World Cup debut. Less than five hours before the 9:45 p.m. (1845 GMT) kickoff, FIFA finally approved six players who were already with the squad in Turku. Head coach Albert Bunjaki could sigh with relief — he had a full team to choose from.
Five of the six players, including goalkeeper Samir Ujkani, had formerly represented Albania, which borders Kosovo. The case of Berisha, who played for Norway before Kosovo gained FIFA and UEFA membership in May, was the last to be resolved.
FIFA's players' status committee had been evaluating requests to switch allegiance of Kosovo-eligible players who had represented other countries at youth or senior level while their home country was not recognized in international soccer.
Kosovo team spokesman Fazli Berisha told The Associated Press the federation "welcomed FIFA's decision. All our demands were taken into consideration."
Kosovo's assistant coach, Tord Grip, said the confusion was unsettling.
"Maybe it's both the Kosovo federation and FIFA that have messed this up. I don't know all the details," Grip, a former longtime assistant to Sven-Goran Eriksson, told Swedish radio on Monday.
Kosovo's entry into FIFA membership has tested the rules on switching allegiance. Created to regulate typical cases in which players had nationality of two existing FIFA member federations, the rules have struggled to cope with a new national team like Kosovo.
FIFA had in recent months approved requests from nine Kosovo players who had represented six different European countries, including Albania, Germany and Switzerland.
Kosovo's qualifying group also includes Croatia, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine.