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Football: Rushall's refugee dreams of stardom

An innocent victim of the civil war in Kosovo is eager to make the leap from non-League football to the big time.
IN THE world that Zijadin Shabani left behind, the name Milosevic is a byword for repression and fear. In the community he wants to make home, the same word is still synonymous with a striker whose wayward shooting for Aston Villa might have attracted the phrase "collateral damage" before it became the most gruesome euphemism of the Kosovo conflict.

Five months have passed since Shabani, a 22-year-old Kosovar, fled his native village of Varosh, some 20 miles from Pristina, and drove through Italy and France to seek refuge in the West Midlands.

Now, as his mother, father, five brothers and two sisters try to resume the peaceful existence they once knew, running the family restaurant in Kosovo, Shabani is living in Walsall. He is also striving to become the first footballer from the disputed region to play professionally in his adopted country.

In truth, his new colleagues in the Rushall Olympic squad, who include a plumber, insurance salesman and one who fits headstones on graves, play for little more than expenses in the Interlink Express Midland Alliance.

But both Shabani, whom they have nicknamed "Dino", and the Rushall secretary, Peter Athersmith, are sustained by the kind of fantasies the sport specialises in fulfilling.

Shabani's dream is to become so prolific a marksman against the likes of Boldmere St Michael's, Knypersley Victoria, and Pelsall Villa that he will be whisked away to the Premiership.

Athersmith pictures a similar scenario, only with his beloved club landing a much-needed windfall.

Such hopes are a trifle premature, however. Due to the difficulties in contacting the football authorities in Kosovo, Rushall have been unable to secure international clearance for a player recommended to them by Norman Deeley, the former Wolves and England winger (himself tipped off by a friend who runs a boxing club Shabani was attending).

"The problem is that the telephone and postal system in Kosovo have been badly affected by bombing," explained Athersmith. "The FA have told us that Fifa [the game's world governing body] are insisting that people follow the normal procedures with players from there, and I pointed out that could take months.

"So Fifa agreed that Dino could register with us within 60 days of our application reaching the FA, which was sent pre-season. It's just in case he's got any suspensions or fines hanging over him. I mean, he might have stabbed a referee for all we know, like most of us want to from time to time!"

Meeting Shabani, who appears a most affable individual, it is hard to imagine any such skeletons in the closet. In his three pre-season friendly appearances, the only damage he did was to opposition defences.

"Because we can't play him in the Alliance for another few weeks and the manager, John Allen, was concentrating on the lads who will be in the side, Dino was only a substitute," Athersmith said. "But he scored three cracking goals and looked as fast as anyone I've seen at this level. I honestly believe he could become top scorer in our league."

Rushall, who had Stan Collymore on their books as a 15-year-old, can always use a saleable asset. A good crowd at their trim but sloping suburban ground is one that creeps into three figures at pounds 2.50 a throw. And, according to Athersmith, League clubs tend to be reluctant to pay even four-figure sums for their players.

As a case in point he cites Zatyiaa Knizkt, a 6ft 5in defender whose handful of games for Rushall last season attracted widespread interest. "Would you believe this kid had an agent - at our level - and he not only went on trial from Rushall Olympic to Sporting Lisbon, but actually turned them down?" Athersmith chuckled, shaking his head at the incongruity of it all.

When Knizkt eventually joined Fulham, then under Kevin Keegan's stewardship, one of Athersmith's committee colleagues wrote to the club bankrolled by Mohamed al-Fayed's millions.

He emphasised that the player had been under contract and that small clubs like theirs could not survive without the revenue earned from unearthing talent and selling it on.

When it became clear there would be no fee or even a friendly match, Rushall settled for 30 tracksuits instead. A few years earlier they discovered a striker called Steve Taylor and sold him to Bromsgrove for pounds 1,500 plus 20 per-cent of any sell-on.

Taylor soon moved on to Crystal Palace for pounds 90,000, earning his first club a cheque which Athersmith reckons "kept us going for two years".

Shabani may never rise above the station to which fate and Milosevic (Slobodan, that is, rather than Savo) have led him. Whatever happens, he will be no less welcome at Rushall, a club as homely as an old tea cosy.

"Everyone's taken to Dino," said Athersmith, "and he wants to stay here and get citizenship. When he came he could say `yes' and `no' and just about get his name out. Now he's learning English two nights a week in college. He's saying more and settling well."

Football is reputedly an international language. Shabani, fighting off the midges in an unfamiliar left-back role to help balance the teams in training, certainly appears fluent in it. Casual conversation is more problematic, although he has no difficulty articulating his enthusiasm for "Chelsea", "David Beckham" and the "nice people" of Rushall.

Athersmith believes the delay in formalising his place with the club could be mutually beneficial, giving him more time to hone his communication skills. With his own Black Country brogue, he seems able to get through to Shabani where others struggle.

"Later, say in two months, maybe you, me and the manager will sit down and talk about a contract," he said to Kosovo's unlikely export, miming the signing of forms. "For one, perhaps two years, yes?" Whether or not Dino fully understood, he nodded his assent.

"Then," exclaimed the genial secretary, breaking into a hearty laugh, "we sell you to Chelsea for pounds 5m."