In a bid to fill the hole left by Andy Carroll, Newcastle United put their faith in 34 year old Finnish striker Shefki Kuqi. It was the striker’s 13th senior club. Naturally, the signing was met with a loud groaning from the Newcastle fans (and gleefull giggling by the rest of the league) and I don’t think anyone groaned louder than me.
Kuqi has yet to start for the Magpies, with the strong performances of Leon Best and Peter Lovenkrands keeping him tied to the bench for the time being. Goodness knows what would happen if he were actually expected to play! In his career, Kuqi has managed 99 goals in 11 years, the majority of those coming when he was at Ipswich Town. Many people see Newcastle as his last hurrah. I just wish he’d hurry up and leave.
However, there’s an interesting story about Shefki Kuqi, which few people know, and has left me with a grudging respect for him. The story originally featured in Sunday’s edition of The Observer, so I’ll try not to copy and paste too much. But if you’ve missed the original, here’s my take on the Finnish journeyman’s life story.
Kuqi was born in 1976, in what was then Yugoslavia. He grew up in the small town of Vucitrn, which was part of the province of Kosovo, an autonomous region in the Serbian part of the country. Kuqi was part of the large Albanian community within the town.
At first, childhood was entirely normal for the young Shefki. He went to school and started to play football with his classmates. Often these games would have a racial element, and Kuqi would play on the Kosovan side against the Serbian kids. However, this was normal and the games would be friendly enough. The relationship in the town between Serbs and Kosovans was also friendly enough, and Kuqi’s father and uncles were good friends with the Serbs in the community.
However, following the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, things began to turn for the Kuqi family. The Balkan region is made up of a number of diffrerent races and tension and violence between ethnic groups has shaped the region’s history for thousands of years.
Without a Communist regime to keep everything in check, the old disputes slowly began to resurface. Things weren’t helped by Nationalist leaders (read: nutters) like Slobodan Milosevic stoking up the fires under Serbian resentment. Kuqi’s family began to see a changing of attitude towards them.
“You noticed the little things. My dad had helped build houses for some of the Serbs and they’d wave and smile when they saw him driving his van around town. But slowly they stopped doing that.”
In 1988, things began to turn worse, and there were reports of Kosovans being attacked or losing their jobs. It wasn’t until Shefki’s brother turned 16 in 1989 however, that the family decided it was time to up sticks and move.
Kuqi’s uncle fled first, and then his father announced that the family were going to follow him. Their destination: Finland. ”I’d never heard of it. It seemed like it was on the other side of the planet.” They said goodbye to their family, something which has never left Shefti. “Our tradition meant we were very close to our family, so it was a real wrench to leave them…Even now I get emotional thinking about that time.” On a cold winter’s day, Shefti, his 2 brothers, his sister, mother and uncles left the town and caught the train to Belgrade, the Serbian capital. They had one bag each so as not to draw attention to themselves, and the clothes they stood up in.
When they got to Belgrade, the whole family remained silent for fear of alerting any Serbians to where they were from. Kuqi sat in complete silence till the train.
“You have to remember we’d been told all the time that the Serbs were our enemies and after what we’d seen on the news, we were scared of them.”
Going into the Serbian capital, was like going into the Lion’s Den. It was like going out on the Bigg Market wearing a Sunderland shirt!
The family made it to Gdansk, in Poland, and caught a ferry from there to Finland. Shefki’s father had already made his way there, 3 weeks before, and was supposed to be waiting for them. His uncles had left them in Gdansk, having made sure the family got to Poland safely. Kuqi believes that his family were amongst the first refugees to enter Finland. At their desitnation they had to wait 3 hours for a translator to arrive. Then they explained their story.
Kuqi’s father was being held in a camp in Mikkeli, and the family were granted permission to join him. Finally, their ordeal was over. They were granted asylum and the young Kuqi, who had developed into quite a good footballer, joined local Finnish side Ka-Pa51. He would eventually gain 62 caps for Finland. Kuqi had left behind friends, family and a whole life in Serbia but he was one of the lucky ones. Genocide was beginning in Yugoslavia, and Kosovo was at the centre of it. Thousands of people would be left dead or homeless.
Kuqi’s career has been long, and filled with many twists and turns. His best years in the game, are now behind him. But it could have been so very different. It’s a cliche, but the journeyman’s career, very often is a real journey.
Like I said, an interesting story.
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