Not sure why it took me so long to post this, about Kosovo's first official match...But here it is..
A number of people asked me which side I was on prior to the Haiti-Kosovo friendly in Mitrovica 6 weeks ago. I seem to be a rarity among my friends: I lived in both places and experienced soccer in both places—in vastly different ways.
Two experiences stand out in Haiti. The house I lived in was in a zone of Port-au-Prince called Bois Patate. In the hills above was a religious school called the Grand Seminaire de Notre Dame de Cazeau, which at the time had a dusty soccer pitch that constantly teemed with people playing pick up. A housemate of mine and I would go running, and occasionally we’d end up at the Seminaire, sweating and covered in a combination of diesel and dust, watching the play as we cooled down. The games were always good-natured, but rough in the kind of haphazard way that pick up soccer often is: players have less control than they think they do, so bodies hit the ground with something bordering on regularity. One day after our run we were sitting on a wall watching the proceedings when some young men approached and asked if we wanted to play. We probably tried to beg off playing—having just been running we were tired, we weren’t very good—to no avail. After not playing soccer for more than ten years, I was thrust into a game. I don’t remember much from the game, other than gasping for breath, and Haitian youth running around and over me. And I remember the joy.
I returned to Haiti in June 1998 to do some research on my thesis. The country was caught in the thrall of the World Cup. To me, the preparations and celebrations around the tournament reflected sociocultural realities. As one traveled in Port-au-Prince or Delmas, residents demarcated their neighborhoods with colors hanging from the telephone wires and electrical poles. The yellow, green, and blue of Brazil by far dominated the cityscape, with smatterings of Argentina’s blue and white. But the second most common flag was the tricolor of France. Especially as you drove up the hill into the posher neighborhoods around Petionville, Brazilian flags gave way to the blue, white, and red of La France, displaying the cultural affinities of many wealthier Haitians. I watched the final at a beach resort, surrounded by French supporters, and celebrating with them as if I had wanted les bleus to win. But with the end of the World Cup, as so often happens, victors and vanquished came together in celebration.
Working with the International Rescue Committee in Kosovo, I lived in a couple of different cities, but I eventually moved to the southern part of Kosovo, to Gnijane/Gjilan. The region was divided into ethnic enclaves—Serbian villagers travelled to the gas station in heavily protected military convoys—and each Serbian town had a small military post on the main entrance roads. Yet , one of the signal successes of IRC in Gnjilane/Gjilan was the creation of a multi-ethnic youth center in town. And the opening celebration happened to coincide with the semi-finals of the 2000 European Championship. Along with the usual self-congratulatory speeches, the event had food, a dj for dancing, and—crucially—inside a small 8x10 room was the one thing that everyone wanted: a television to watch France-Portugal. The night was marvelous. Serbian and Albanian youth—male and female—gathered together to watch a sporting event whose outcome mattered little to them. But the force of the event, more even than the youth center opening, brought them all into close proximity for the first time in months, even years and gave them a sort of common ground.
But sometimes soccer outcomes mattered in Kosovo. The Kosovo soccer league is serious business. Not because of the quality of play, but because it is a business. Outside of FIFA auspices at the time, the league was riddled with corruption at all levels, and the outcome of games could be accurately predicted well before kickoff. I attended one game when I lived in Gjilan/Gnjilane, a local derby between Drita K.F. and Gjilan K.F. that would go a long way to deciding that season’s Kosovar Cup. As with all local derbies, tensions ran high in town for days in the lead up to the match, even though there were no ethnic affiliations on the line: both clubs comprised Kosovo Albanians. Security was tight. The local UN civilian administrator had ordered the UN police out in force, so a unit of Turkish police lined the front of the stands on either side of the pitch. I attended with a co-worker of mine whose brother would go on to captain the Drita to the Cup championship the following year.
I admit that I don't remember the details of the match. Drita took the lead in the first half to the delight of our section, and people around me began shaking the chain-link fence at the front of the stands. The second half started 2-0 Drita. But then a goal for Gjilan brought them back into the match. Drita fans and players alike called for offsides. The goal stood. The Drita players began focusing on the referee more than on the game, with the Drita goalie refusing to go back to his goalmouth. A yellow card. He walked back towards his goal. Five minutes later, the referee gave a penalty kick for what was a clear dive by Gjilan’s striker. The entire Drita team rushed the referee, complaining about the call. He walked away, Drita followed. The Drita stands shook with rage while across the field Gjilan supporters celebrated their good fortune: all they needed was a tie to move on in the competition. After another ten minutes of complaints, threats, and yellow cards handed out by the referee, it happened.
Out onto the pitch walked a man in a suit. He was flanked by U.N. police and carried a microphone. As the UN municipal administrator spoke, the fans sat in stunned silence. What was happening? Then the translator spoke and the fans erupted: due to the attitudes on the pitch, the U.N. representative canceled the game and gave the victory to Gjilan KF.
Somehow the teams—and the referee—made it off the field safely. But then pandemonium broke loose. On our side, the Turkish police extended their collapsible metal batons to full length and began beating the hands of fans shaking the fence. They used mace on the people closest them. Meanwhile, the Gjilan fans streamed across the field, provoking even more rage from the Drita fans. UN police seemed unable to stop the advance of the Gjilan crowd, which would have spelled disaster had they reached Drita. Sensing the impending danger, the unarmed Kosovo Security Force—the fledgling security force made up of former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters—made a line at the edge of the field, linking hands to keep the surging Gjilan crowd back. Suddenly, the situation defused. The Gjilan fans respectfully stayed behind the KSF line, while we in the Drita stands began to tend to fingers and faces. Within a half-hour, the whole crowd was walking back through town, amid U.S. armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles that had been called in as back up.
It’s hard to imagine what members of the Haitian national team thought about Kosovo in March. I spent a couple of very long, very cold months in Mitrovica, then as now a city divided physically and ethnically by the Ibar River. At the time, the only way to cross from the Albanian dominated southern Mitrovica into the Serbian northern portion was through French military checkpoints over a bridge thick with brambles of barbed wire. Certainly, the Haitian players would have picked up on the tension in the air. I remember it as palpable, and the name of the soccer stadium—Adem Jashari Stadium—suggests that reconciliation remains a long way off. Jashari is considered the father of the Kosovo Liberation Army and was killed, along with over fifty members of his family, in 1998.
And, for those who care: my heart was with Haiti.