PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Football's newest country is hoping to be the surprise package of the World Cup qualifiers, just a few months after gaining FIFA membership.
Kosovo became a UEFA member in May, joined FIFA a week later and was fast-tracked into 2018 World Cup qualifying.
It earned a credible 1-1 draw in Finland last month in its competitive international debut and is looking to spring more surprises against Croatia and Ukraine, even if coach Albert Bunjaki believes the European Championship in 2020 is a more realistic target.
Kosovo plays Croatia on Thursday in Albania's northern city of Shkodra as it has no stadium certified by UEFA. It also plays on neutral territory three days later, with its away match against Ukraine being held in Poland as its opponent does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state.
"It will be a hard game," Kosovo coach Albert Bunjaki said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday. "We know that Croatia is a good team and after three days we'll play against Ukraine. But at the same time you know in football you can surprise.
"We've started the qualification. Our goal is 2020. At the same time of course we will try to do the best in every game, so the next one is the Croatian national team. We will get the answer after the game. We will try to surprise them as we can."
It was a far from easy match against Finland. Kickoff was less than five hours away when the sport's governing body finally allowed six players who had represented other countries to switch their allegiance to Kosovo now the former province of Serbia is recognized as a football nation.
Valon Berisha's case was the last to be resolved and the former Norway international converted the penalty which secured Kosovo a point in Group I, putting it level with the other teams after both Croatia-Turkey and Ukraine-Iceland also ended 1-1.
"It's going to be hard for us because we just started up with this national team," Berisha said. "We are a lot of new young players who don't know each other very well. I think it will take time until we form a really good group.
"We made a good first impression I think and we could have won the game against Finland. But now we are up against two really good international teams. It will be hard for us but we can surprise them because they might take us a little bit easy and it might go against them."
Defender Leart Paqarada also believes Kosovo has the right mix of talented individuals to spring a surprise.
"Our team spirit is very well and we are well prepared for the game," he said. "We have individual quality in the team and that's why I think maybe we can surprise somebody."
Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania contributed to this report.