Kosovo celebrates a football homecoming Thursday, nearly a decade after becoming independent, by hosting its first competitive international match, a World Cup 2018 qualifier against injury-plagued Croatia.

It may not be a homecoming that Kosovans, mostly ethnic Albanians, have been wishing for as the match is set in Shkoder, in the north of neighbouring Albania, but the exhilaration is still there and the stands will be packed to their 17,000 capacity.

This time Kosovo was unable to host the match on its own soil not because of politics but because it has no stadiums that are up to international competitive standards.

The former Serbian province was the scene of a brutal conflict which eventually drew NATO into intervening against Belgrade in 1999. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but were admitted to the world football organization FIFA only in May.

Expectations in Kosovo are high, though Croatia are the regional football giants. Last month, the football newcomers took a point from their first Group I qualifier, a 1-1 away draw against Finland.

Only hours ahead of the Finland match, FIFA allowed a batch of players with roots in Kosovo to switch to the new team despite having previously played for other countries.

Coach Albert Bunjaki admitted to reporters that the power of Croatia, a team comprising several global superstars, worries him.

Meanwhile, however, three top Croatian players, captain Luka Modric of Real Madrid, Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona and Dejan Lovren of Liverpool had to withdraw due to injuries.

Croatia coach Radomir Cacic told reporters in Zagreb that the injuries "can't be an alibi" for his squad in an "inspirational" match against first-time hosts Kosovo.

"I expect a hellish atmosphere with spectators being the 12th man for Kosovo - but our boys are used to that and enjoy it," he said. 

"Unfortunately, some players have injury problems, but that's football life and we must prepare without them," Andrej Kramaric of Bundesliga's 1899 Hoffenheim said. "Croatia always seek to win and we fear nobody."

Kosovo's centre-back Amir Rahmani, who plays for Croatian side Lokomotiva, warned that even without the key players Croatia are favourites.

"Luka is your best player," he told Monday's edition of Croatia's Sportske Novosti daily. "It is felt in Croatia and Real when he doesn't play and it is good news for us - but you have other dangerous individuals."

Related stories

Kosovo steps on world football stage

Kosovo make their point on international football stage

CAS to hear Serbia appeal over Kosovo in October

Croatia, Kosovo face fines after anti-Serb chants

Latest news

Syrian opposition rules out future role for President al-Assad

The Syrian opposition said Friday it would not accept any role for President Bashar al-Assad in the future of the war-torn country, reacting to a recent US shift saying that removing al-Assad is no longer a priority for Washington.

Russian Army integrates breakaway forces of Georgian province

Parts of the small fighting forces of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia have been placed under Russian military control, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday.

Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell beer is now Japanese

Japanese brewing company Asahi completed its takeover of the Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell on Friday, Asahi said in a statement.

Judge approves 25-million-dollar settlement of Trump University case

A US district judge on Friday approved a 25-million-dollar settlement of lawsuits and state fraud allegations against Trump University, the US president's now-defunct business venture.

Former Thai premier Thaksin to junta on reconciliation: 'Cut me out'

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Friday announced that he is not interested in the junta-led reconciliation process, three days after the junta handed him a half-a-billion-dollar tax bill for his past business deal.

Dalic: We welcome possible deal between Agrokor and banks

The government welcomes the possibility of an agreement being concluded between the Agrokor food company and creditor banks, and the bill on vitally important companies is not a fallback plan but the result of the government's care for the overall economic and financial stability of Croatia, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic told a press conference in Zagreb on Friday.

Croatia, China sign action plan for cooperation in agriculture

The Croatian and Chinese ministries of agriculture on Friday signed an action plan for cooperation in the field of agriculture for the period 2017-2018, the Croatian ministry said in a statement.

ZSE indices up, Agrokor shares in focus of investor interest

The Zagreb Stock Exchange (ZSE) indices on Friday rose by more than 1.8%, with stocks of the Agrokor food and retail concern being in the focus of investor interest again.

Berlin police defend handling of Berlin market attacker

Berlin police defended themselves on Friday against accusations that they stopped surveillance on Berlin Christmas market attacker despite knowing in June 2016 he was dangerous.

Croatia, creditors tailor emergency measures to save tottering giant

Croatia's tottering retail and food giant Agrokor reached an agreement with its creditors, putting its debts standby and allowing it to continue working during emergency restructuring, the Croatian branch of Austria's Erste Bank said Friday.

Agrokor's creditors say standstill agreement to go into force today

A standstill agreement regarding the Agrokor concern's existing financial obligations to banks will take effect on Friday, additional capital will be injected into the concern in the coming days and the concern will be actively restructured, which includes a change of its management, it was said on Friday after a meeting between Agrokor's suppliers and creditor banks.

Palestinians, UN slam Israel's new settlement plan

Palestinians, Israeli activists and the UN lambasted the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, a day after it gave the go-ahead for the first new West Bank settlement in a quarter of a century.

South Sudan rebels release three abducted foreign oil workers

South Sudanese rebels have released three foreign engineers they abducted in early March in the oil-rich Upper Nile region, Foreign Affairs Ministry official Mawein Makol Arik said on Friday.

Turkish opposition: Imprisoned party chief has gone on hunger strike

The head of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party has launched a hunger strike from prison.

European leagues threaten Champions League schedule clashes

The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) on Friday threatened schedule clashes on Champions League matchdays in an ongoing dispute with the governing body UEFA.

Danish court revokes citizenship of IS volunteer

A Danish appellate court on Friday stripped a man of his Danish citizenship for volunteering to fight for the extremist Islamic State in Syria.

Banks and Agrokor agree on key elements of standstill agreement

Member banks of the coordinating committee of financial creditors and representatives of the Agrokor food company have in principle agreed on key elements of a standstill agreement, which is expected to be signed later today, announcing changes in the company's management team, Erste Bank said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

Syrian man on trial in Sweden; mosque attack labelled terrorism

A Syrian man went on trial Friday in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, charged with terrorism and arson after an attack last year on a building used as an assembly hall by Shiite Muslims.