Theranda, Kosovo: The Europa Conference League may not be the highest level of European football but there is a small town in Kosovo where it has taken on the enormity of the World Cup.
Theranda — sometimes known by its Serbian name Suva Reka and with a population of around 10,000 — is gripped by football fever following the exploits of local club Ballkani.
Winners of the domestic Superliga for the last two season — and going along nicely in search of the hat-trick — Ballkani are eyeing the possibility of becoming the first Kosovar club to qualify from the group stages to the knockout rounds in a Uefa club competition.
So far they have played two of their six group games, losing 1-0 at Czech side Viktoria Plzen before producing a minor miracle and beating the much bigger and more storied Croatian team Dinamo Zagreb 2-0.
On Thursday, Ballkani host Kazakh champions Astana although technically it is not actually ‘at home’.
Their 1,500-capacity stadium falls short of Uefa requirements, which means ‘home’ matches are being played at the Fadil Vokrri stadium — capacity 13,980 — some 50 kilometres away in the capital Pristina.
Construction businessman Faton Bytyci, 41, told AFP that the fans are mobilising for the roughly one hour drive to Pristina because a victory would give them “a great chance” of reaching the knockout stage.
“None of our clubs have achieved that so far,” he said. “That’s why not a single seat should be empty. The Pristina stadium should be full.”
The players are also optimistic.
Right back Armend Thaqi, who also plays for the Kosovo national team, said “the victory over Dinamo gave us great motivation”.
Head coach Ilir Daja believes that opponents no longer underestimate his team, especially at home.
“From the first elimination league until the match with Dinamo, we only recorded victories on our field,” he said.
“We scored 13 goals and only conceded one.”
Fans attribute Ballkani’s rise to the unreserved support of their home city.
Bytyci says that the citizens of Theranda “get up with Ballkani, eat with Ballkani and go to the bed with Ballkani”.
It is always the main topic “in the city, cafes and streets”, said hairdresser Korab Elshani.
“Ballkani is also non-stop the main topic in my salon”, the 38-year-old added.
Thaqi said that such support “inspires us to deliver even more on the pitch, to make our fans happy.”
Before Ballkani’s rise, Theranda was known principally for its wines.
The town produces wine and brandy and is located in a traditional wine-growing region.
“Theranda was and is famous for wine production,” said Elshani. “Ballkani only embellished the appearance of our city.”
Lately it seems the football has become just as popular as the wine.
“We are the only ones in the history of Kosovo football to have been in the European group stage twice,” said Daja.
“It is not an easy thing to reach the group competition once. We did it twice.”
Youngest European democracy
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and eight-years later was accepted into European and world governing bodies Uefa and Fifa.
Although the youngest European democracy has so far been recognised by about a hundred UN members, Belgrade still does not recognise Kosovo as a state.
Ballkani’s players and fans believe successes abroad help strengthen the image of their country.
“Sport, especially football, is the best ambassador of the state,” says Bytyci.
“We do not only represent Theranda but the entire state of Kosovo,” said Trashi.
Coach Daja, meanwhile, acknowledges that the club is being ambitious its bid to reach the knockout stage of the Conference League.
“It’s hard when you have big goals but it’s easier when you have guys like these in Ballkani,” he said.
“They don’t give up. They have the mentality of a winner.”