Arber Zeneli is caught up in a maze of emotions. The then 20-year-old stares ahead. At the end of his vision’s tunnel lies the departure gates with a one-way ticket that will allow him to embark on a new chapter. It’s the blank page that is ready to be written in The Netherlands, Heerenveen to be precise.
But so many tales in Arber’s life had been told. Looking behind him was his childhood showreel – the main characters in the story were his two brothers. Removing their outer exterior was the proudness of Arber fulfilling his dream but the sobbing sight of separation between themselves and their older brother had to pour out.
“Whether it was raining snowing or sunny, we were always out there playing football together. In the summer, there were around 50 children playing on the pitch but in the winter, it was only me and my brothers – where there’s often 40 centimetres of snow!
“These memories were very tough to leave. When I saw my two brothers cry, it hit me really hard. I had been around them my whole life. It was like splitting my heart. This was the toughest decision I have ever made.”
Being brought up and moving around Sweden played a monumental part in Arber’s joyful upbringing. Hovering around Sweden’s scenery from Säter to Falun to Borås was the route Arber took along with his Albanian-born parents.
Watching their son’s growing love for football expand was expected. As AC Milan fans, Arber’s mother and father wouldn’t get in the way of their child’s obsession for the sport.
“Everybody has that story about how their parents had to bring them home to make sure that they didn’t go out again. In the summer, I would be out playing until midnight!
“My parents thought that Borås would be perfect for us. I really loved Falun and we were sad to leave. However, growing up, I know how much it means for us to be in Borås. They had tough experiences from when they were immigrants in Sweden.
“They just wanted the best for their children and to see us succeed in life. Borås was a great opportunity for the whole family to grow. I can’t imagine how tough people from poorer countries have it. This is why I’m very grateful for having a good childhood.”
Arber’s football memoirs often contained a certain Brazilian, Kaka. Milan’s magician had the world at his feet. The Italian side’s first-half performance against Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final in contrast to the second half was a fatal switch from elation to devastation for any fan connected with the club.
Spending that unforgettable night with Arber’s biggest inspiration, his dad, who had taken a day off work just to see the match was one thing. Seeing Steven Gerrard lift the sparkling Champions League trophy shine through all the red confetti under the Istanbul floodlights was another.
Seeing the then imperious Milan fall to defeat brought tears to 10-year-old Arber’s eyes. However, it was the destiny of playing football on the highest podium that he dreamed of. It was five years later, where Arber’s kick-start to the top would begin, as a major in IF Elfsborg’s youth ranks.
“I always had a dream to play on the biggest stage. The moment it really hit me was when my U17 coach at Elfsborg, Tobias Linderoth believed in me and my skills.
“There were no orders. It was the case of just going out and doing what I’m best at. Tobias Linderoth as well as Jan Mak, they both gave the freedom to do everything offensively whereas most coaches can work 70% on attacking and 30% on defence.”
Claiming two honours at this level with Elfsborg including his 85th minute winner against Brommapojkarna in the final of the Swedish U17 Championships in 2011, Arber’s taste for silverware started as just two years later – the winger netted in the 5-2 thrashing of Häcken to lift the Allsvenskan U21 title.
Playing an instrumental role in Elfsborg’s academy, it was a matter of time for Arber to rise to the first-team fold. Elfsborg legend and Sweden’s most-capped footballer to this day, Anders Svensson had witnessed Arber’s development, citing him as arguably the greatest talent he had ever seen.
“As a young player, you get this confidence and when you hear this praise from someone with the most Swedish national team caps, it gives you a boost to work even harder.
“When I was in the first-team squad, I didn’t show any mercy to anybody because we had some good players and we had won the Allsvenskan [Sweden’s first division] title.
“When we had training, my teammates didn’t want to play against me one-on-one and they wanted to be on my team!”
Arber’s career could have taken a different course if it weren’t for the tragic passing of his Elfsborg coach Klas Ingesson. Ingesson was the man that instantly came to Arber’s mind after scoring his first senior goal, dedicating this emotional moment to the former World Cup bronze medallist.
It was the change in manager that instigated Arber’s decision to follow an adventure away from his homeland. Despite, having competition for his spot, the winger relished the challenge.
“The new coach signed a player in my position, and I was thinking ‘Oh damn, now I’m not going to get the chance this year!’ so I had to put the hard work in.
“The player that came in felt some pressure because I was impressing in training and when I got the chance, I was scoring goals so that year I felt that it was the right time for me to leave Sweden.”
Although there was positivity surrounding the move to the Dutch side, Arber’s national allegiance was being questioned having been part of Sweden’s set-up since 16.
Arber may have enjoyed the success of lifting the U21 European Championships, but he was willing to put recent glory and loyalty to one side. As the Swedish spark was fizzling out, the importance of feeling wanted was more valuable.
“The national team coach wasn’t positive about my move to Heerenveen because he felt that Dutch football was too attacking and it wasn’t as hard defensively. Sometimes, he would also use a central midfielder as a left-winger rather than play a natural player in this position.”
“I never said that I don’t want to play for Sweden. I just didn’t get the motivation from the national team to keep on going otherwise I would have believed that I’m close.
“When Kosovo came, I had to make a choice and I chose with my heart. Firstly, I had to think about myself and secondly, if Sweden’s U21s don’t give me the chance to play, how am I supposed to play for the first-team?”
Arber reached the century milestone in appearances for Heerenveen, who were often hovering around the mid-table of the Eredivisie during his three seasons at the club.
Injury struggles and constant rotation were detrimental factors as Arber’s time in The Netherlands was coming to an end. This was when Colossal stepped in and helped the then 23-year-old to prepare for his next steps in an already intriguing career.
“At the beginning, it wasn’t a big difference of playing on one side compared to playing on the other side, but when you’re used to playing on one side compared to the other, there’s a difference.
“Before I signed with Reims, Colossal and I were acquainted, and they showed me complete professionalism. They showed total interest when they approached me and when we were talking, I was immediately interested in Colossal.
“Colossal and I have a working relationship, but they are like a family. I believe in them and they believe in me. You can’t do everything by yourself. Having these people around you that you believe in 100%, you can get even stronger.”
After the Sweden-Kosovo commotion, the move to Reims presented a fresh start in a different league. Arber would be able to express the natural flamboyance and finesse he possessed ever since those days of playing football in the Scandinavian snow.
This was set to be the transfer that would transform this nurtured Kosovan international. However, Arber hit another, more painful route in his quest to gain global prominence whilst impacting his private life.
Walking down the tunnel of Montenegro’s Pod Goricom stadium, with the intent to secure a vital win for Kosovo, suffering an injury of any kind, let alone an anterior cruciate ligament was the last thought on Arber’s focused mind.
Those 100 spectators in attendance were unfortunate to see Arber suffer this excruciating experience behind closed doors. All the national star could do is watch, not just on that June night but for the rest of Kosovo’s qualifying campaign.
“I was just thinking ‘Please don’t be an ACL!’ It was a tough moment for me and my family because I had never thought that this could happen. I was supposed to be going to Dubai with my girlfriend and proposing to her after my time with the national team.
“Even though I see the team everyday through the window, they train and I’m inside running and they’re outside playing football and having fun, it’s tough but I have a very strong mentality.
“I have just tried to be positive because if I get down I would be getting depressed and this could slow down my rehab. In Kosovo, we have a strong mentality and I think I got this from my father.”
Seven months later, Arber’s mindset continues to be as strong as ever. Whilst the recent past feels like a never-ending cycle of ups and downs for Arber, the near future shines brighter than ever before.
That priceless point in Montenegro kept Kosovo’s hopes to reach a first major tournament alive. The semi-final play-off tie against North Macedonia before a potential final against Georgia and Belarus in March stands in Arber and his nation’s way.
However before that, a return to action revolves around Arber’s immediate thoughts, showing his determination to not only help country but also club in boosting Reims’ chances to end a 58-year wait of qualifying for the Champions League.
“People say that I only want to play for Kosovo in the European Championships, my focus is to get fit, then to start playing for Reims before being involved with Kosovo.
“Of course, I want to play in the Euros but I also want to play for Reims and show my gratitude for what they have done for me. Then hopefully I will be in good form to help the national team to our first major international tournament.”