Looking to the skies of Pristina’s streets, red flags marked with a double-headed eagle were found waving in harmony with other flags donning blue and yellow. One represents Albania, the other represents Kosovo. On the second day I was discussing the meaning of the more prevalent red flag and was told against my previous impression that though the red flag is frequently found flying, it is not that of Kosovo but instead of Albania.
I found this very interesting. Sure, the majority of Pristina’s residents are Albanian rather than Serbian or Roma (Roma are commonly said to be Eastern Europe’s Gypsies), but shouldn’t Kosovo’s flag fly higher and stronger than the rest?
Shortly after I found out the truth behind the different flags decorating the streets of Pristina, I came across a group filming what appeared to be a game show in the middle of a pedestrian area. Video cameras surrounded four contestants seated at a table, and a TV van waited nearby. I found someone who was confident enough to speak a few English words and he told me this activity was being broadcast to bring attention to the football game later that day. This conversation was held in not so many words of course. It went more like this:
Me: “Perdon, do you speak English”
Me: “What is this for?”
Him: “Football. Albania Kosovo”
Me: (eyes light up, in my all-too-usual overly enthusiastic expression) “When?”
Him: (points at watch and holds up two fingers)
Me: “Ah great! Where?”
Him: (points to his left, down a street packed with cars and of course, many many flags representing Albania and Kosovo flying overhead. I realize he’s pointing toward the main stadium and think this must be pretty big!)
Me: “Yes yes okay! Tickets?”
Him: (continues to point left in the direction of the stadium)
Me: “Hvala! Thank you, thank you!”
I nearly ran to the stadium. It was almost noon and now seeing how many people were dressed in game gear made me think they had previously purchased tickets and I may be left cheering into a television screen rather than into a packed stadium. Past vendors selling red and blue flags, t-shirts and little white hats, I found two men standing in front of a tiny podium. A small crowd had formed and I quickly joined, finding my place in line.
“Koleeko?” I asked. How much?
Three euro! For a football game in Kosovo versus Albania. Given the countries’ proximity and the amount residents identifying as Albanian, I assumed there was going to be some seriously heated rivalries amongst the fans. This was going to be exciting to say the least!
Once I purchased a ticket and got my wits about me again, I took a more leisurely stroll past the vendors. They were not only selling red and blue merchandise: They were selling combination red and blue merchandise. Flags and shirts alike appeared to have been cut apart and sewn back together: Kosovo on one side, Albania on the other. Shirts and scarves mimicked this idea, and were selling like hotcakes.
I made my way through the gates after watching the players pass by in towering coach buses and finding the ticket booth I’d just been to had since closed. Sold out! I had bought them just in time.
Inside the stadium, I found a spot on a concrete slab functioning as both a seat and aisle, and stood a few levels up from the field. Within minutes people poured in. It was then I realized just how friendly this border battle was, no heated rivalries to speak of. People wore shirts supporting Albania and hats representing Kosovo. Couples posed together for photos, one wearing red and the other wearing blue. A flagpole within the stadium even had that cut in half / sewn back together identity crisis of a flag. One section of the stands seemed to be particularly proud of Albania, though a closer look showed a multitude of Kosovo fans amongst them.
There was no relief from the camaraderie. Everyone was laughing, smiling and happy to be together. Players helped each other up from faked falls regardless of which jersey each was wearing and though FIFA regulated, it seemed even the referees were pals with players from both teams. There was no ‘boo’ing or bashing an opponent because there was no opponent.
At half time, fans scrambled to find a seat on the concrete steps. Packed like sardines doesn’t even begin to describe the crowded bleachers. People were stacked on top of one another, sitting on laps of friends or neighbors regardless of each other’s gender or age. A group of four men in their sixties and seventies originally standing to my right tried to take turns sitting in the small space they’d procured, then gave in and sat on laps instead.
The game itself was mediocre at best. Friendly fields make for less action and thrills. Through the second half, cheers came and went and the players and fans stayed civil, snacking on sunflower seeds sold by the handful. After ninety minutes the border battle was over.
The game’s final score? There was no winner. There was no loser. It was a tie: 2-2.