Kuqi lives a dream after the nightmareof Kosovo

The Ipswich Town striker tells Paul Newman of the problems he has faced since his family left Albania when he was 12
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The Independent Football

When Ipswich Town came out for the second half against Plymouth Argyle at Portman Road last month, some of the home fans were not impressed. Losing 2-1 and with only 10 men left after the dismissal of Fabian Wilnis, the manager decided to take off Pablo Counago, the club's stylish Spanish forward, and replace him with Shefki Kuqi, a striker of more rudimentary talents.

When Ipswich Town came out for the second half against Plymouth Argyle at Portman Road last month, some of the home fans were not impressed. Losing 2-1 and with only 10 men left after the dismissal of Fabian Wilnis, the manager decided to take off Pablo Counago, the club's stylish Spanish forward, and replace him with Shefki Kuqi, a striker of more rudimentary talents.

Forty-five minutes later, with three points in the bag courtesy of two late goals by Kuqi, Joe Royle explained his thinking. "When you're down to 10 everyone has to graft," the Ipswich manager said. "That's the challenge for Pablo." As for Kuqi, matters were simple. "You know what you're going to get from him," Royle said. "Honesty."

Kuqi, a 6ft 2in Kosovan who ended up playing for Finland, can be a handful for managers. He fell out with Carlton Palmer at his first English club, Stockport County, over the collapse of a proposed move to Blackburn Rovers, he told Chris Turner what he thought about being dropped at Sheffield Wednesday, and he made it clear to Antti Muurinen that he was not prepared to keep turning up for internationals and never be given a place in the starting line-up.

What all his managers have found out, however, is that, with Kuqi, what you see is what you get. Never one to shirk a challenge or a tackle, the powerful 27-year-old plays the game with a commitment which probably owes much to the turmoil of his boyhood years. When you learn what Kuqi and his family have been through since a fateful letter dropped on their doormat some 15 years ago, you realise that playing football for a living must be like living a dream.

Born in Kosovo, the province that became one of the centres of the bloody Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, Kuqi is from a family of ethnic Albanians, whose dispute with their Serbian rulers eventually led to Nato's war with Yugoslavia. The tensions which had been building had yet to develop into open conflict when the arrival of army call-up papers for one of Kuqi's brothers presented the family with a dilemma.

"A lot of young lads were being called up to the army and some of them were getting killed within just a couple of weeks of joining up," Kuqi said. "When my brother was called up, my Mum and Dad decided it was time to leave the country. We only had a week before he was due to join the army, so we had very little time to prepare. We travelled by train from Kosovo to Budapest. We took very little - not much more than the clothes we were wearing."

Kuqi's parents decided to take their five children on to Finland in the hope of finding refuge. "It was very difficult," said Kuqi, who was 12 at the time. "We didn't know where we would be going and where we would be staying. And we didn't know whether we would be accepted or whether the country would send us straight back. It was a year or two before we knew that we would be able to stay in Finland. Some people who went there were sent back home.

"It was a huge change, going to live in another country and starting a new life. It took a while to get used to it. I did very little in my first year in Finland. I didn't speak the language and we didn't know anybody. The Finnish language is hard to learn. My family eventually picked it up and they're now OK with it, but it was very difficult for them at first. Fortunately when you're a kid you pick the language up quite quickly and make friends. I started to go to school and play football. And getting into football was the best possible way for me to make my mark in a new country."

It was with his first club, Miki, that Kuqi decided he wanted to be a professional footballer. By the time he was 15 he was playing alongside men in the Finnish Fourth Division. An offer to the fast-growing youngster to join MP, a Premier Division club, soon followed. At 18 he was playing for Finland's leading club, HJK Helsinki, in the Champions' League against Benfica, Kaiserslautern and PSV Eindhoven. He spent his final year in his adopted country with FC Jokerit, when he was named Finland's player of the year, before deciding to take his chance elsewhere.

"I'd won everything I could in Finland," Kuqi said. "I'd won the cup and the championship and when I was with HJK we were the first Finnish team to qualify for the Champions' League. We had only two or three thousand people watching our home games normally, but in the Champions' League we'd get crowds of 30,000. The tickets sold out straight away. Unfortunately that tells you a lot about the standards in Finland.

"The problem is that if any young player does well in Finland they go abroad straight away. That's brought the level down. When the international team get together none of us are with Finnish clubs any more and that tells its own story. Finland has a lot of good players but we're nearly all playing abroad."

A trial with Wolves ended with the offer of a short-term contract, but Kuqi chose instead to join Stockport early in 2000. "The manager, Andy Kilner, promised me that I'd get plenty of games and that was important," he said. "I needed to get the games and improve myself."

Kuqi was clearly suited to the physical style of the English game and Blackburn took him on trial the following season, at a time when Stockport were installing Palmer as manager in place of Kilner. "Blackburn offered to buy me, but the manager kept changing my price every day. It was a big chance for me. The reason I went to Stockport was because they promised me that I would play games and they said that if I did well a bigger club might come in for me - and they wouldn't stop me leaving.

"I scored six goals in the last 10 games of the previous season, which kept them up and meant they kept a lot of TV money the following year. They paid only £200,000 or £300,000 for me and Blackburn were offering them a lot more money. To stop me going to play Premiership football was a shocking thing for me at the time."

Kuqi moved instead to Sheffield Wednesday for £1m. Two years at Hillsborough brought 19 goals in 64 appearances before Royle brought him to Portman Road just over a year ago. The second leading scorer at the club last season with 11 goals, he tops the current charts with five.

"The gaffer was a great footballer himself and he's one of the best managers I've ever had," Kuqi said. "As a striker, he knows what strikers have to do, where they need to be on the field. We play good football and the good thing is that we score goals from all over the pitch. I think we're in with a really good chance of promotion, though it's early days. We're third in the table and I don't think we've played our best football yet."

This season has also brought a revival in Kuqi's international fortunes - he scored twice in a World Cup qualifier against Armenia last month - after a lengthy period warming the Finland substitutes' bench. Kuqi came on as a substitute in both games against England during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup and put Jari Litmanen through late in the match at Anfield, which was Sven Goran Eriksson's first competitive match. "It was a great chance," Kuqi said. "It would have made the score 2-2. Jari couldn't believe that he had missed it."

His finest moment, however, came three years ago when he scored in the 90th minute after coming on as a late substitute against Albania in Tirana. "To score against Albania was very special for me," he said. "I'm not from Albania, I'm from Kosovo, but as Kosovan Albanians we're basically the same people. All my family and everyone who knew me was watching the game, either at the stadium or on television."

It was only after the end of the fighting in Kosovo that Kuqi returned to his homeland. It was an emotional experience. "I didn't go back for 10 years," he said. "A lot of people didn't recognise me. I told them: 'I'm Shefki'. But we'd been away for 10 years and I was only 12 when we left, so obviously I had changed. They had changed. But when they realised who I was, there was a lot of crying, a lot of emotion.

"It was really shocking to go back. I remembered pretty well how it was before and I remembered my village. We still have our house there and thankfully that had been saved, but a lot else had changed. A lot of the houses were smashed to the ground in the war. I'm from quite a big family and to hear a lot of the stories of what went on in the war was very shocking. You see things on television when a war's going on, but things that they told me about were things that people just can't believe."

Talking about the war and its aftermath clearly still hurts Kuqi, who declines to elaborate. "We know all the things that happened," he said. "But you don't expect good things to happen in a war."

Kuqi, whose younger brother, Njazi, is currently on trial with Birmingham City, now returns with the family to Kosovo every summer. He has bought a plot of land half an hour from his home village, but says he has yet to decide whether he will go back to live in his homeland. His family have settled in Finland and he has a Finnish passport, but he enjoys living in England - he has a Kosovan girlfriend here - and clearly loves his job.

"I might try to stay here," he said. "I don't know. For the moment I need to concentrate on my job. But maybe I'll get married, have a family and things will change."