Kids in Atdhe Nuhiu shirts named after Tony Blair: how the Sheffield Wednesday forward can make history with Kosovo
Atdhe Nuhiu has the very broadest of broad shoulders. And given the pressure burrowing down on them as Kosovo attempt to take their next giant leap into footballing history this week, broad shoulders he will need.
The Sheffield Wednesday forward is expected to step into his country’s starting line-up for their Euro 2020 qualifier with Czech Republic this evening knowing only a win will do if they are to head into Sunday’s clash with England within reach of qualification for the tournament at the first attempt.
Nuhiu has watched on from the bench in every minute of the qualification process so far. His return to the team – in what would be his first competitive start for his country in over a year – has been enforced by an injury to star man Vedat Muriqi.
Muriqi, of Fenerbahce, was watched by Premier League scouts in their remarkable 5-3 defeat to England in September, scoring one and creating the other two. His was one of four goals in his last four international games and he’s led the line in all but one match in Kosovo’s run of one defeat in 22 matches, stretching back over two years.
A lot like six-foot-five Nuhiu himself, the stakes couldn’t be much higher.
His is a stop-start international journey that has been closely watched by Arben Berisha, Kosovo’s answer to Clive Tyldesley who has commentated on every one of their games since they were awarded official FIFA membership just three years ago.
He admitted Nuhiu’s star has fallen since he featured in the first 10 consecutive matches after his decision to play for the country of his birth back in 2016, but that Muriqi’s ankle knock provides a unique opportunity to go further into football folklore.
Speaking to The Star, Berisha said: “At the time he joined the Kosovo national team he was very much respected. He still is, but he just cannot get the pitch time because of Muriqi’s great form recently.
“The problem that Nuhiu has, aside from Muriqi’s form for both his club and for Kosovo, is that he is a player of the same profile. They are both tall and are more or less the same style, but Nuhiu cannot move as quickly as Muriqi can.
“This could be a chance. We’ll see if he can return to his place as a starter.”
Since his arrival at Sheffield Wednesday in 2013, Nuhiu has kept a low profile when it comes to media appearances. A rare interview with The Star last December revealed the scale of his family’s struggle of having to escape war-torn Pristina when he was only months old; of the separation from other family members and the country’s ongoing struggle.
After the fall of Yugoslavia came a long wait for Kosovan independence from Serbia, which eventually arrived in 2008. And it is across both sides of the border that Nuhiu’s legend is adored, revealed Berisha.
“Although Atdhe was born in the Kosovo capital of Pristina, he is from another part of Kosovo that is not within our borders currently,” he said.
“He’s from the Preševo valley, which is currently in Serbia. He has so many supporters from that area, we call it east Kosovo, and there I’ve seen so many supporters and children wearing Nuhiu shirts. There’s Atdhe Nuhiu everywhere.”
The UK’s role in the liberation of Kosovo is well documented, of course, and the arrival of Gareth Southgate’s England on Sunday is cause for national celebration there.
It is the role played by Tony Blair’s young government in leading NATO intervention in the Kosovan war that has formed an undying admiration for the UK from that part of the world. Hundreds of children were given the name ‘Tonibler’ in homage to the former Prime Minister and residents have lined the streets with banners welcoming the England team.
“The support that the UK gave Kosovo will never be forgotten by the Kosovan people,” Berisha explained. “The support that we received in the war of 1999 means we are forever grateful. We have that bond.
“If Kosovo don’t manage to get to the Euros, then with Albania the next team most of the Kosovans will support is England. We support your national team very much and this is a chance to see this England team on our home turf.
“We want to return that feeling for their support during those difficult times.”
And as for qualification itself? Should Nuhiu’s men fall short of the results needed to secure a spot, they, like Scotland, will have an opportunity to qualify through a March play-off between UEFA Nations League winners; first against Macedonia and then either Georgia or Belarus.
“It would be a fantastic achievement. Historic,” beamed Berisha. “We formed just a few days before the last Euros started. Three years from that point we find ourselves close to qualifying for Euro 2020.
“If we don’t do it this month, then we have a chance, a second ticket. Hopefully we don’t need those matches. We need four points, a win against Czech Republic and a draw against England, which would be enough to qualify there.
“This would be a big, big achievement.”
Kosovo’s clash with Czech Republic will kick off at 19:45 and is available to watch via the red button on Sky Sports Football.