Finland's army have to join the queue for Kuqi

National service call-up a headache for Royle and his 'most improved' player
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The Independent Online

In a competition for football's unusual names, Shefki Kuqi would certainly earn a podium place. Born in Kosovo, now a citizen of Finland and enjoying a memorable season with Ipswich, the craggy, Roman-nosed striker is, you might be tempted to say, a tough Kuqi, a Kuqi who is not for crumbling. As he needs to be, since his story, from childhood in the Balkans to hero status in Suffolk, has a military theme running through it.

In a competition for football's unusual names, Shefki Kuqi would certainly earn a podium place. Born in Kosovo, now a citizen of Finland and enjoying a memorable season with Ipswich, the craggy, Roman-nosed striker is, you might be tempted to say, a tough Kuqi, a Kuqi who is not for crumbling. As he needs to be, since his story, from childhood in the Balkans to hero status in Suffolk, has a military theme running through it.

When Shefki was 12, his older brother became liable for army service in Kosovo. So, although war had not yet erupted in that troubled country, his father, a builder by trade, emigrated with his wife and four children to Finland, where climate rather than killing was the principal consideration.

Now, at precisely the wrong time, the army has intruded again. Kuqi has been reminded by the authorities back home that he must, like every Finnish male, serve six months in the armed forces. That service has to be completed by the age of 30, and Kuqi is 28; a remarkably mature-looking 28, it has to be said.

Other Finns playing in the English leagues, such as Southampton's Antti Niemi, got their military obligations out of the way early but, as a late developer in the fame and earning stakes, Kuqi faces the quandary of career disruption at the very worst time.

"It is a problem for me outside football that I need to sort out," Kuqi conceded. "But I don't want to talk about it now because we have an important couple of weeks coming up here at Ipswich. My target is to concentrate on that and sort out the problem when the time comes."

The fact that his manager, Joe Royle, is suggesting that the commitment might be undertaken in two three-month spells during football's close season is clear indication of the new light in which Kuqi is regarded.

Royle calls him "the most improved player at the club" and terms his contribution to Ipswich's run of success "invaluable". Yet last summer, having gone to Portman Road in mid-season on loan from Sheffield Wednesday and then signed as a free transfer, Kuqi was poised to move on, either to Daewoo Royals in South Korea or Hansa Rostock of the Bundesliga, despite having scored 18 goals in the 2003-04 season: five for Wednesday and 13 for Ipswich.

Royle now insists: "It wasn't a case of me trying to get rid of him. The information I was getting from Shefki's side, through his agent, was that he would have welcomed a move. Now I think the world of him, but he had a poor finish to last season, he hadn't gone well in pre-season and I was led to believe he wouldn't mind moving on."

Kuqi confirmed: "There was a lot of speculation about me leaving Ipswich, but I said to my agent, 'I know I can do a lot better here this season than last'. I didn't want to move on, didn't want to leave England. Ipswich is the place I have most enjoyed playing, and I thought I could do even better. I have already almost reached my goal target for the season." He declines to reveal what that target is, but has so far hit 10 for his club and two for his country since the summer.

Kuqi's potent combination with Darren Bent, not least his ability to hold up the ball and angle it into the path of his pacy 20-year-old partner, is the fulcrum of Ipswich's progress up the Champion-ship table. The way they work together was perfectly illustrated by Ipswich's late winning goal on Tuesday night against the previous leaders, Wigan. Kuqi's leap for a long, high ball did not quite connect, but distracted the defence enough for Bent to latch on to the opening. Now Ipswich celebrate Christmas as division leaders, a status they defend at Millwall today.

This good news has revitalised Royle's position, as well as Kuqi's. His appointment as manager having been greeted with something less than enthusiasm by many supporters, Royle has just signed a contract extension which will keep him at Ipswich until the summer of 2007. Royle says he put pen to paper "because of the feelgood factor plus the potential" at the club.

Kuqi is full of praise for the man who formerly managed Oldham, Everton and Manchester City. "I like the football we play here. Joe is one of the best managers I have ever had. His record says it all and I respect him very highly. I think he has improved me as a footballer."

Another manager Kuqi respects is Andy Kilner, who introduced him to English football at Stockport. After becoming a professional in Finland at 17, playing for HJK Helsinki and FC Jokerit and making his debut for the national side in 1999, Kuqi was sought by Wolves. However, they were prepared only to offer a six-month contract, so he returned briefly to Finland before Kilner signed him in January 2001, on the recommendation of another Finnish international already at Stockport, Jarkko Wiss. "Andy promised me that if I went to Stockport I would play every game. That was the chance I was looking for," Kuqi said.

Kuqi scored 11 goals in 35 matches, helping to keep the club in the old First Division, before Wednesday paid £1m for him in January 2002. Though he finished their top scorer, too, with 12 goals in the side who were relegated, the price tag weighed heavily, and he suffered barracking at Hillsborough before Wednesday, unable to afford his wages, sent him on a three-month loan to Ipswich. Kuqi scored in his first game, and when he hit three more in his first 10 outings, Royle made the move permanent.

Kuqi is well aware that he has limitations. "A lot of people weren't sure about me when I went to Ipswich," he said. "They knew I would work hard but wondered if I could score goals. I have proved I am able to do that. Over the first couple of yards I am not the quickest, I know that, but I am not slow for my size."

There was praise from the former Wolves manager Dave Jones: "Shefki never gives up. I have never know a player to run so hard from start to finish." Nor, considering his role, does he suffer many injuries. "I have been in England four years and only missed two or three games," he smiled. "I had better touch the wood." Perhaps if he keeps touching the wood - and scoring goals - Finland's army can be persuaded to wait a while before claiming their tough Kuqi.

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