Sheffield Wednesday: Atdhe Nuhiu reflects on his own journey from war-torn Kosovo to the verge of qualification for Euro 2020

Atdhe Nuhiu was just six months old when he left the country of his birth.

Monday, 9th September 2019, 1:30 pm
Kosovo forward Atdhe Nuhiu (Photo credit should read GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP/Getty Images)

He escaped war-scarred Pristina, Kosovo, in 1990, fleeing the conflict with his parents to Austria. His relatives were there during the bombing raids as the Balkans fell apart. Pristina was a scene of much devastation.

Nuhiu told The Star: "I didn't grow up there, but my family went through things. They were not touched by the military like other parts of Kosovo.

"The most important thing is everybody survived."

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"It (war) is not the nicest thing in the world," he continued. "I was at the time a very little boy. I was maybe not able to understand every single part of it."

It was also difficult for Nuhiu to communicate with his family.

"At that time, iPhones didn't exist so it was not easy to get hold of my family over there," said the Sheffield Wednesday centre-forward.

Nuhiu's relatives truly understood the pain and hardship of war. His family would be hiding in the basement when Nuhiu phoned home.

Sheffield Wednesday striker Atdhe Nuhiu

Speaking to The Sun last December, he conceded: "You would call and always have fear that something had happened. You saw the news and picked up the phone and you were never sure.

"Those who were there, when they tell the stories, it is different. They always stayed in the basement.

"If a bomb came and they were in the basement, nothing could happen. During the war, you need to find the best way."

It was in February 2008 that Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia.

Atdhe Nuhiu, right, in action against Iceland (Photo credit should read HARALDUR GUDJONSSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The infrastructure in the country has "changed for the better" since those dark days, according to Nuhiu.

But he stressed: "There are still people who have not forgotten about the war. It is not easy what people went through. It is not something that you can imagine.

"There have been some crazy things that has happened."

The remarkable success of Kosovo's men's football team has further lifted spirits in the country.

Should they beat Macedonia and then Georgia or Belarus in next March's Nations League play-offs, Kosovo will qualify for the European Championship without need for the more conventional route. It comes just three years after Kosovo gained membership of football's international governing bodies.

"It has been a crazy journey," said Nuhiu. "We are proud but we are not there yet.

"The chance is there (to qualify for the Euros) and I think everyone is willing to get there.

"No one really believed in this journey outside of Kosovo.

"I think we have managed to prove people wrong.

"We know we have good players.

"We have done a great job in the Nations League and now with the qualification.

"We have some very good, talented players. I can see a few of them in the future playing at some of the biggest clubs."

Kosovo entered Saturday's European Championship home qualifier with Czech Republic on the back of a 14-match unbeaten run, which included an eye-catching win over Bulgaria.

They are Europe’s youngest international team and the "Brazil of the Balkans" tag that has playfully followed them around no longer looks fanciful.

Nuhiu said: "Football is the number one sport in the Balkan region. Basketball and handball are popular too but football is generally the main sport. It is what everyone follows.

"I think everybody is pleased and proud generally of how things are going.

"We have a stadium of 15,000-16,000; if we had a stadium like Hillsborough with 40,000, we would probably fill it.

"Our support is very high and everybody is enthusiastic.

"They are proud and the results have been very good. They are proud that we have a team in Kosovo.

"We will see what happens when things are not so good but hopefully but we can keep on doing well."

The 30-year-old takes great pride in representing Kosovo on the international stage.

"It is not just any national team," said Nuhiu. "There are people in Kosovo who have maybe been through the war and are happy to see us playing football.

"Some people have tears in their eyes when they see you on TV as they never imagined seeing Kosovo playing in the qualifiers or even challenging to go to the Euros.

"The people are proud of the team and so are we."

Kosovo will be without two of their biggest threats when they take on England tomorrow night. Both wingers Milot Rashica and Arber Zeneli are injured while Benjamin Kololli and Hekuran Kryeziu miss out too.

Nuhiu is under no illusions at the size of the task facing Kosovo at St Mary's.

"It will be a bonus what happens with England," he said. "It would be crazy for me to say we are going to compete against England because we are not at that level yet. We need to be honest.

"Okay, we can surprise but it is not a disaster if we don't get the result."

So can Kosovo cause a big upset?

Nuhiu said: "I think we can surprise but it will be very hard.

"Our strength is definitely the attacking side of the team. They are really good at what they do.

"As good as England are, if we can get in the transition of the game, we can still hurt them.

"The main factor against England is we have to show what we have done in the other games.

"They are a big opponent but I don't think think we should fear them. We respect them a lot but there is no point in changing our style of play.

"We need to be alert and as solid as we can be."