Friday 13 May 2016 is a date Bersant Celina will never forget. Not long after the exciting midfield prospect penned a contract extension until 2020 at English Premier League giants Manchester City, Celina’s native Kosovo were admitted as a FIFA member association, enabling the country to compete for a place at major tournaments for the first time.
“It was an incredibly proud time for me,” Celina told FIFA.com, reflecting on that day. “Being able to play in FIFA competitions was a massive thing for both me and the country and I was very happy that we are now able to take part in major tournaments. Signing a contract is reward for performing well and I think my family are really proud of me. I am proud as well.”
Currently on loan at Dutch side FC Twente, Prizren-born Celina moved to Norway with his family as an infant in 1998, escaping looming war in his homeland. After settling in Drammen, a city with a large Kosovan immigrant community, Celina developed his love of the beautiful game, signing for local heavyweights Stromsgodset IF as a schoolboy before representing Norway at a number of youth levels, including U-21.
When the decision came to choose between Norway and Kosovo, the 20-year-old opted for the latter, and has since featured in Kosovo’s first official match, as well as the nation’s first FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against Finland just last month. The starlet now harbours big international goals: to captain his country on the greatest stage of them all.
“To captain Kosovo at a World Cup is an ambition that I still hold. That is the ultimate aim,” said Celina. “I am happy for all the players who will be able to take part and hopefully we will all be able to play in the World Cup one day. It means a lot to us after what the country has been through that we now may be able to compete in a major tournament. I think everyone is very happy about this and our supporters just want us to do well.”
The full extent of Kosovo’s FIFA admission was arguably felt most by players, staff and supporters on 3 June 2016 when they took on Faroe Islands in their first recognised international ahead of the country’s maiden World Cup qualifying voyage. It was the first time the country’s flag was displayed and anthem played before an international, an extremely proud sight for Kosovo before they ran out 2-0 winners in their first official game.
“There was an incredible amount of excitement around that first friendly against the Faroe Islands,” recalls Celina. “It was a good game that we won – although not the best game for me as I got sent off! We showed then that we can win games and we played well. We all know what the country has been through, what our families have been through. We want to do well for them. It comes from the heart. The passion not just for football but for everyone in our country. I’m very proud to represent Kosovo.”
World Cup ambitions
Kosovo face a baptism of fire on the road to Russia 2018, having been paired with no less than four teams in their maiden World Cup qualifying group who were at UEFA EURO 2016: Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine and Turkey. After an opening 1-1 draw at Finland, they face Croatia on 6 October 2016, before a trip to Ukraine three days later.
Under the guidance of manager Albert Bunjaki – “a good friend, easy to work with and tactically excellent” – according to Celina, confidence remains high in the Kosovo camp despite the tough task that lies ahead.
“It’s a very tough group. My aim is to qualify – it shouldn’t be anything else,” asserted Celina. “We should go into every single game and give everything. You never know what is going to happen. In football anything can happen and I believe we can do it.”