Three Albanian players with Kosovo roots have left the national side to join Kosovo after the neighbouring country was admitted as a UEFA and FIFA member and entitled to take part in the Russia World Cup qualifiers earlier this year.
Midfielders Milot Rashica, Alban Meha and Herolind Shala have chosen to join Kosovo after being left out of Albania’s Euro 2016 squad, marking the first departures from the national side.
The departure of 20-year-old talent Milot Rashica who plays as an attacking midfielder for Dutch Eredivisie side Vitesse is the biggest loss for the national side as it faces a tough challenge in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Rashica made his debut with the national side in a Euro warm-up friendly against Luxembourg but was left out of the 23-men squad for Euro 2016 in a surprise decision by coach De Biasi following a wonderful season with Vitesse.
“It was not an easy decision for me after playing for a long time with the youth teams and the national side which has represented all Albanians in and out of their territories,” said Rashica.
“This decision is not a decision against Albania. It is more of a choice for Kosovo where I was born and grew up. I want to give my contribution to the first steps of the Kosovo national side,” he added.
Reacting to Rashica’s choice, Albania’s Italian coach Gianni De Biasi who led Albania to a historic first ever appearance in a major tournament, said he was disappointed by the player’s choice.
For Alban Meha, a midfielder who hasn’t been called up by De Biasi since 2014, this was an expected decision. The 30-year midfielder known for his long-range goals, has recently moved to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr from Turkey’s Konyaspor.“I am very disappointed because I thought he would be one of Albania’s most important players in the next 10 years. I think his choice was influenced by the fact he was not called up in the Euros. I am very sorry for the Red and Black fans because they want a single national side and everyone with Albanian roots to play for Albania,” said De Biasi.
Young midfielder Herolind Shala is another loss for the national side. The 24-year-old, who was left out of Euro 2016 squad, is currently playing Czech Republic’s Slovan Liberec on loan from Sparta Prague.
More than half of Albania’s current squad have Kosovo-Albanian roots.Kosovo will join Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey and Finland in Group I of the World Cup qualifiers after being accepted as a UEFA and FIFA member last May.
Goalkeeper Etrit Berisha, captain Lorik Cana, midfielders Taulant Xhaka, Ermir Lenjani and striker Shkelzen Gashi, all of whom have Kosovo roots, were regular starters in Albania’s Euro qualifying campaign with a key contribution to the country’s first-ever appearance in a European championship.
Kosovo’s UEFA and FIFA membership also sparked concerns in Switzerland as some of its key players have Kosovo roots and although they are unlikely to abandon it, younger generations of players could pick Kosovo.
Albania will face a tough race in the 2018 Russia World Cup qualifiers after being drawn against four-time World Cup winners Italy and 2010 winners Spain in Group G.
Albania will play a home friendly against Morocco at the end of August few days before they take on neighboring Macedonia in the first World Cup qualifier on Sept. 5.