Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Ultimate Fan Experience

::Baeth (6/6)

Today seemed to be a whirlwind of meetings and hilarity. For the first day since arriving, we all shed our sporting attire and instead, reverted to our 'fancy pants' for meetings with various ministry officials. We started off by walking into town – a whopping 3 blocks – to the Ministry of Youth, Culture, and Sport, where we met Malsor Gjonbalaj, political adviser to the minister. Gjonbalaj explained the steps through which Kosovo is attempting to found and rebuild a sport-for-all and elite sport system. The progress made thus far seems to be immense, though Kosovo is still struggling to establish itself within the international sporting community.

After our meeting in the ministry and several photos, Visar, in his usual momma-hen fashion, led us to the Department of Sport, or 'House of Sports' according to a small plaque outside, where we met with Mr. Fadil Vokrri, the president of Kosovo's Football Federation. In this time, Vokrri and Afredita told us more about the role of soccer in Kosovo and the ways they were attempting to develop better programming for youth soccer throughout the country, despite a lack of funding and an infrastructure with a fairly small capacity for growth, given the amount of interest expressed by Kosovar children, boys and girls alike, to play the sport.

Our last meeting of the day was over lunch (which included three different types of Kosovar bread) with the Director of Sports of Kosovo, Mr. Iber Alaj, and Mr. Fikret Shatri, the assistant men's basketball coach for the Pristina – the capital of Kosovo, which is also home to about 40% of the population – team.  After regaling us with several stories and opinions on former NBA stars, Fikret invited us to the fifth and final game for the Kosovo basketball cup. 

In the afternoon, Carly put together a mini circuit work out that we all completed in one of the hotel rooms. Push-ups, crunches, and wall sits abound, we spent most of the time simply laughing at each other.

Upon arriving at the basketball hall later that evening, we were shuffled between several of the entrances, finally being escorted to the back of the building, where we squeezed between several police officers in riot gear. The spectators were unlike any we were expecting…the hall, relatively small, was jam packed with thousands of shirtless men, waving blue Prishtina scarves, most decked out in aviator sunglasses.  

We were lucky enough to have seats of honor, right on the side of the court, next to the presumed wives of the Pristina players. An incredibly tense game between Sigal Pristina and Mitrovica's  Trepca ensued. Pristina, having been the reigning champions since 2005, and hosts of the game, certainly had a home court advantage. The crowd, complete with designated cheer-leaders (leaders of the cheers, not cheerleaders!) in front of each stand, had several songs and chants they would yell whenever Prishtina had possession, followed abruptly by high pitched whistles whenever the opposing Mitrovica had the ball. The chanting and whistling, I do not exaggerate, did not stop throughout the entirety of the game. Unfortunately, Pristina lost in the end by 12 points, resulting in a few cheers from opposing fans, and several empty water bottles being thrown onto the court.

The real highlight though was during half time, when Tori was invited to join several other fans, including a handful of very tall ex-basketball players, to a free throw competition. Please reference the upcoming video as it is beyond words.

While the day was filled with many meetings in which we discussed the theories and potential outcomes for sport, and women in particular, in Kosovo, it was certainly fun to see sport, and the culture of sport, in action. We are looking forward to seeing the women's and men's finals for soccer tomorrow!

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