By Fatos Bytyci
MITROVICA, Kosovo, March 5 (Reuters) - They were not allowed to sing their national anthem nor to wear national symbols and the match ended in a muddy 0-0 stalemate but for Kosovo the friendly international against Haiti on Wednesday was hailed as a huge success.
Albert Bunjaki's men were left splattered with mud after playing through rain but that was the least of their concerns as the match in the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica signified that Kosovo was finally making inroads in its long struggle to play international matches.
"Bearing in mind our lack of preparation, the very difficult terrain ... and knowing the importance of this game we all have to be happy as we are all winners," Kosovo coach Bunjaki told reporters.
"I am very happy with what I saw in this game. This is our first step in a very long journey ahead ... where our objective is (qualifying for the) World Cup.
"We have shown that we deserve to be part of world football."
Six years after declaring independence from Serbia, the majority-Albanian Kosovo has been recognised by more than 100 countries but not Serbia or its big-power backer Russia.
Without a seat at the United Nations, Kosovo is not a member of FIFA or UEFA.
Following negotiations with the Serbian FA, FIFA ruled in January that Kosovo could contest friendlies against other nations as long as the team do not display any national symbols, including flags, or sing their national anthem.
As a result, the team walked out on Wednesday with the name 'Kosova*' printed on their backs - with the asterisk added in accordance with a request by Serbia not to prejudice its former province's political status.
More than 17,000 soccer fans attended the game - each carrying a small Kosovo flag provided by the organisers - eager to see players of Kosovo origin such as Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj, Bayern Munich's Xherdan Shaqiri and Napoli's Valon Behrami in action.
Unfortunately for the spectators, none of those three took the field but the majority of the players who did line up are part of a generation of Kosovars whose families fled poverty and repression in the 1990s.
The game was played in the former mining hub of Mitrovica, split at the River Ibar between ethnic Albanians in the south and ethnic Serbs, who reject Kosovan statehood, in the north.
Mitrovica has been a frequent flashpoint since the 1998-99 conflict, when NATO intervened with 78 days of air strikes to drive out Serbian forces behind the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians during a counter-insurgency war.
The town remains the focus of a NATO peace-keeping force which now numbers some 5,000 soldiers.
Kosovo's sporting infrastructure has largely fallen into disrepair, the result of isolation, war and political limbo during the region's decades-long fight for freedom from Belgrade.
The country of 1.7 million people invested $1 million to renovate the stadium for Wednesday's game, which began under a burst of fireworks.
"We have been waiting for this for centuries. I can not describe this moment, me being in a game where my country plays? It is unbelievable," Agron Kastrati, 33, said waving a Kosovo flag. (Editing by Pritha Sarkar)