Tuesday 16 May 2017, 06:30

Nuhiu: Kosovo fans never thought they would see this

  • Atdhe Nuhiu reflects on scoring historic goal for Kosovo

  • Nuhiu discusses the impact the team has on Kosovo’s people

  • Sheffield Wednesday striker predicts bright future

Beautiful things and priceless memories can come from paths you may not have initially chosen to follow. Kosovo’s Atdhe Nuhiu has found that out first-hand.

Having moved to Austria aged six months, with his family fleeing the conflict in their homeland, the towering forward grew up among the central European mountains, before rising to become part of his adopted nation’s youth system. No surprise that he wanted to wear that shirt as a full international, but that dream never materialised.

The likes of David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic were his team-mates in the U-21s but, having been on the fringes of the first team, it became clear the chance was not going to come. “One door closes, another opens,” he told FIFA.com. Kosovo came calling and “I didn’t need to think twice."

That gateway has led him to make history in land of his family, with Nuhiu heading Kosovo’s first ever competitive goal on home soil – a cathartic moment of elation for the Shkoder crowd, despite the 2-1 defeat to Iceland in their 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifier. “It was very nice for them and the goal made my family particularly happy,” he said of his debut strike, “especially my father as he’s a very patriotic guy .”

While the result was not what was hoped, the simple fact of seeing Kosovo compete on the world stage is still a reality that is awe-inspiring for their fans. “They cheered the goal in a way they are not used to, because this kind of happiness is new to them,” Nuhiu explained. “Taking part in football, the Olympics, is a big thing and it’s more than pride.

“They suffered so much through the war and never believed they’d ever see Kosovo compete against somebody else. When people see the national team on TV they cry tears of happiness because they didn’t think they’d see that happening in this generation.”

Once this honeymoon period has dissipated, Nuhiu is confident the country of almost two million people can flourish, simply by looking at the Kosovan talent already dappled around world football. “There is the national team of Albania – half of whom are from Kosovo, plus of the Switzerland team who could play for Kosovo too,” the Sheffield Wednesday striker said.

“We have players taking part in three national teams. the talent of players they have there. If you think about it, it’s a big thing! I think the future is there!”

Iceland prove dreams can come true One such star is Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri. Nuhiu went to great lengths to show his support and understanding for Shaqiri representing the Alpine nation. The Stoke City player grew up there and, ultimately, the timelines between his rise and Kosovo’s emergence on the international stage don’t match up.

It is a scenario Nuhiu understands pointedly, as it reflects his own upbringing in Austria and desires to represent them, but the Switzerland midfielder’s visible pride in Kosovo resonates strongly with those back in the Balkan state. “You cannot blame him for playing for Switzerland, not at all,” Nuhiu states emphatically. “Everybody respects that as it’s the country he grew up in.

“When he won the Champions League his Switzerland flag was there alongside the Kosovan and Albanian flags. These kind of things show how together and how much it means for him to be part of Kosovo. A person who hasn’t lived there or isn’t from there can’t put themselves in this kind of situation.”

So, while he hopes the raw talent is in the pipeline, right now he sees the Russia 2018 qualifying campaign as one of growth and foundation-building. “Don’t forget that the fifth game since Kosovo was accepted by FIFA and UEFA,” Nuhiu said. “We have to keep following this path together.”

With Turkey up next, previous opponents Iceland – following their run to the UEFA EURO 2016 quarter-finals – stand as a model for them to follow in Nuhiu’s eyes, with regular points and potential qualification standing as goals for the future. “Why can’t we do it? They’re not a bigger country than us, population-wise, so they should be our example. But nothing goes from zero to 100 quickly.”