THE GRASS was long and ragged and the surface was uneven but for the players it must have seemed as if they were running out on to the manicured turf of Wembley. The 50 or so supporters watching from the litter-strewn terraces cheered as though it was a World Cup final.
Nine years after they were banned from their home ground because they were Albanian, the footballers of Pristina FC returned to their stadium yesterday morning and held their first training session.
The players, sweating in the sweltering midday heat, looked as though they could have run all day. "This is the first time we have been allowed on to the pitch in almost a decade. It is a very special day," said Shinasi Berisha, a former Fifa referee and the club's director of football, as he cracked open a bottle of champagne and toasted the future of both Kosovo and the beautiful game.
The story of Pristina FC is not simply a story about football: rather it is indicative of something that is happening all across Kosovo. The return of the "Blue Boys" yesterday morning to the ugly concrete stadium in the centre of Pristina echoes the return of workers to many of the country's institutions. Having been forced from their jobs in 1990 if they refused to sign loyalty oaths to the Serbian state, thousands are now demanding their old jobs back. The Serbs - who for years held those jobs under the protection of the state - are now fleeing Kosovo in droves.
Until 1990 the players of Pristina FC were professional sportsmen who played in a mixed Albanian-Serb team in Yugoslavia's First Division. When the time came for them to sign the oath of allegiance, they decided they would rather quit the team. "I remember the last game we played here," recalled Afrim Toverlani, the team's captain. "Like with all the other organisations they tried to make us sign up to the Serbian regime. I would not do so. The day we left we knew we would come back but we did not think it would take so many years. Coming back here today it feels like I have been born for the second time."
Having turned his back on the team in 1990 Mr Toverlani was no longer able to continue as a professional player and was even made to hand back his team shirt. To make a living, he opened a pizza restaurant, but - with help of his Albanian team-mates - Mr Toverlani made sure that Pristina FC, a team founded in the 1920s, survived. While a team of Serb players - also calling themselves Pristina FC - took over the stadium, the Albanian players played in their own league.
Their opponents were other Albanian teams, such as Liria (Freedom) from Prizren, Vllaznimi (Unity) from Djakovica and Besa (Vow) from Pec. In the ensuing nine years, Pristina won the cup and the league on two occasions. "We played against other Albanian teams in and around the villages. But even then it was difficult. The police tried to stop us and we kept getting arrested," said Mr Toverlani. "Sometimes the police would come and chase us while we were playing."
Like so many other institutions in this shattered country, Pristina FC faces months, if not years, of rebuilding. The stadium - where as recently as last March the notorious warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, "Arkan", and his gangs of militia used to watch the Serbian team - is in chaos. In the changing rooms, deep in the bowels of the stadium, the floors are strewn with old kit, bandages and boots. In the offices, papers and team programmes have been scattered everywhere. There was even a photograph of the Serbian team, though there was no sign of the players.
There was also a sense of menace. In the first days of the Nato bombing it was widely suggested that the Serbian authorities had rounded up hundreds of Albanian men and herded them into the stadium, chillingly reminiscent of the actions of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet at the national stadium in Santiago in 1973 where so many were executed. Yesterday a United Nations spokesman said there was no evidence of executions in Pristina's stadium. However, the rumours still abound and the discovery yesterday of empty cartridge boxes in the home team's changing room did nothing to dispel them.
With all the problems they face it will be many weeks before the team is ready for its first fixture, a game they hope will be a charity match against a Swiss team. But yesterday the team and its officials were positive. "Now we have to be organised and start our work," declared the chairman, Beqir Aliu, as he addressed the players. "We have to prove that Pristina was a good team before and it will be good again."
And then it was on with the serious business as the players began a practice game. Within minutes of the kick-off, a teenage winger crossed the ball into the penalty box for the centre forward to head home. A very important goal had been both scored and achieved.
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