Scoring goals of togetherness: The first multi-ethnic girls’ football tournament in Kosovo celebrates strength and diversity

5 Jul 2022

Scoring goals of togetherness: The first multi-ethnic girls’ football tournament in Kosovo celebrates strength and diversity

If you ask Andjela Canacevic, a 12-year old Kosovo-Serb girl from Brezovica dressed in her yellow tiger-striped football jersey, who her sports idol is, she declares excitedly: “MBappe!”

Lea Komoni, 11, a Kosovo-Albanian girl from Pristina, started playing football with boys in her neighbourhood at the age of 4, and her face will light up when she tells you Messi and Neymar Jr. inspire her to be a better footballer every day.

When 16-year-old Viktorija from the Kosovo-Bosniak community in Gračanica/Graçanicë was younger, she would constantly hear the words “Football is only for boys!” whenever she would go out to play.

Football coach Suzana Nedeljkovic, who is now 47, says her dreams of playing football were cut short at a young age because of a lack of support. Her hero has always been the now-retired Steven Gerrard, manager of the England’s Premier League Club Aston Villa.

These may seem like distinct and separate stories across communities and generations of Kosovo girls and women, but today they have come together as a result of the UNMIK-supported project of creating the first multi-ethnic girls’ tournament in Kosovo, equipping them with resources and training, and organising tournaments across the region.

Along with implementing partner 'Klubi Futbollistik i Vajzave "Prishtina"’, the project aimed not just to achieve women empowerment through sports but also to advocate for the prevention of gender stereotyping in sports, develop football in rural areas and enhance social cohesion between all communities in the region. 

As a result, these girls from across municipalities like Gračanica/Graçanicë, Caralevë/Caraleva, Dragash/Dragaš, Brezovica and Pristina are breaking barriers and scoring goals that were long reserved for boys – to become football players in their own right and forging friendships across ethnic and regional lines along the way.

“My favourite footballers right now are boys because that is who we see on TV, but I want to be a role model for young girls in Kosovo as a professional footballer myself one day,” said Komoni. Canacevic shares this sentiment.

And Nedeljkovic is working to pave a path for them that she did not have the opportunity to tread. “I wanted to be a football player when I was a child, but it wasn’t popular then. I had no one to push me, no manager etc. Today it’s different. Initiatives like these make it easier,” said Nedeljkovic, the coach and manager for the Gračanica/Graçanicë team. “I hope the best for these girls. I hope to make them dream; I hope to make their dreams come true.”

The goal standard 

With the support of selected municipal coordinators, the project worked to identify the training field, purchase training materials and start a door-to-door campaign on awareness-raising for registration of girls on women football teams. Jerseys and t-shirts were re-branded, t-shirts created for all new teams and joint trainings, tournaments and socialising were made possible, forging new solidarities between young girls in true sporting spirit.

“Our work is responsive to the real needs and desires of the communities that we serve, in particular, those of women and girls throughout Kosovo,” said Head of UNMIK Office of Community Support, Ms. Margarethe Matic. “Encouraging young girls to overcome obstacles in any field in their lives, whether it is through a huddle on a football field or as a decision-maker in politics, every step forward helps in building trust, creating sustainable peace and cohesion in the region. And this project does just that,” she added. 

Despite challenges regarding gender sensitivity and difficulties with the engagement of coordinators for certain municipalities, the project engaged over 300 women and girls. It is a testimony to the spirit of unity in diversity bolstered by the spirit of sportswomanship that the Gračanica/Graçanicë team has women coaches and girls from Kosovo Serb, Bosniak and Roma communities. Similarly, Dragash/Dragaš, has a team of girls from the K-Albanian, K-Bosniak and the K-Goran communities. 

Bonds beyond the field

“After the initial push and encouragement, these girls play so well together - if you see them on the field, you won’t be able to tell who is from a rural or urban area, who is from which community - they just play together as a collective team,” said  Kron Sadiku, Project Manager.

It goes beyond just playing football, however, as it is equally important to have more women in the space of decision-making in sport. 

“I play but I am now also a certified referee by the Football Federation of Kosovo. I was encouraged to try something new and I thought, why not! I love it!” says Anila Barisha, 16, from Pristina. “I hope to grow, go abroad and referee important games some day,” Berisha adds.

Through this project, 8 girls have been similarly certified as referees and engaged by the Federation. 

From cheering for their teammates on the sidelines to exhilarated hugs as they dash down the field after scoring a goal; running for water and care for injured team members, they spend hours every week just learning the game, learning about each other and exposing themselves to new realities. Football has helped bring together these young girls from across Kosovo communities both on and off the field. 

And while they may be inspired by MBappe, Neymar and Gerrard today, their grit and spirit is an embodiment for a world of togetherness and empowerment beyond sport.