LORIK Cana can still remember the day civil war came to Kosovo. It was 1991, and as the former Yugoslavia began to splinter into its constituent ethnic pieces, the Sunderland midfielder’s homeland was transformed into a battleground between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
Fortunately for the Cana family, an escape route was at hand. Lorik’s father, Agim, was a former Dinamo Zagreb player who had been offered a move to Swiss club Montreux to finish his career. As war became inevitable, he was able to take his wife and children out of Kosovo and watch the ensuing chaos from afar.
Millions were not so lucky.
The Balkan wars that lasted until 2001 were Europe’s deadliest conflicts since World War Two, and the first since 1945 to be judged as genocidal in character.
Cana lost numerous friends as the Serbs fought an unsuccessful campaign to retain de facto control of Kosovo, and even today the 26-year-old finds it difficult to return to his native Pristina without thinking about those who were lost.
Little wonder then that the age-old cliché about football being more important than life or death cuts no ice with the Sunderland skipper.
“A war is something terrible for people, for a country, for everything,” said Cana.
“Thank God I didn’t lose many people from my family, but my friends lost lots of people.
They lost houses, they lost everything. It was a very difficult time.
“I was seven when I left Kosovo. I left with my sister and my parents. It was almost as if it was not true to leave.
The worst thing was that, for eight years, there was no possibility to go back. We were refugees. When you are political refugees you cannot move. You cannot leave Switzerland or the country where you are. That is the most difficult thing.
“I stayed in Switzerland eight or nine years without the possibility to see the rest of my family and friends.
“At the time, it was very hard to play football because you were always thinking about the war and your family.
Looking back at what my family and I have been through, it makes me proud that I am where I am today.”
Cana’s current home, of course, is Sunderland, but the tough-tackling midfielder could have been playing in England a decade or so ago had his refugee status not hampered his attempts to leave Switzerland.
At the age of 16, Cana’s youth employers, Montreux, set him up a trial at Arsenal.
He made it as far as Dover, but was stopped by a British border control officer who sent him back to the continent as he did not possess the correct visa to enter the United Kingdom.
“Before preparing to go to Arsenal, I had to do a test for two weeks,” said Cana. “But I had problems with my papers and it was impossible for me to get the UK at that time.
“It was nine years ago when I was 16. I was in contact with Arsene Wenger, but if you move to a place like Arsenal you are a player in amongst a lot of other players, so it was probably better to go to a place where they really wanted me and helped me express myself as a leader.”
That place was Paris St Germain, although the French club had to take on their own national authorities in order to employ a player who was still regarded as a legal alien because of the uncertainty regarding the status of Kosovo.
“He had an interesting potential, but no physical strength,” said Antoine Kombouar, then the reserve-team manager of PSG. “He was struggling to adapt to life here, but I quickly learned that he had no papers.
“As we had promised to have his family come over, the club had to do some heavy administrative processes to clear the situation. It wasn’t an easy situation and the bosses were always asking me questions.”
The club’s administrative efforts proved worthwhile, as Cana went on to make 69 appearances for Paris St Germain before moving to Marseille in 2005.
He was even more successful on the Mediterranean coast, playing 122 games for Marseille and skippering the side to two French Cup finals.
He made a £5m move to Wearside this summer, and has quickly established himself as a firm fans’ favourite thanks to his combative qualities and committed approach.
“I have really enjoyed it at Sunderland so far,” he said. “It is only starting, but it has been great and we have made a decent start. I already have a great relationship with everybody at the club, and when you are a new player that is vital.
“Marseille will always be my club, and it will be for the rest of my career, but it was time for me to try something different. Marseille is a big club, but to try a club like Sunderland felt right. Most importantly, I have a manager who really wants me.”
Steve Bruce’s faith was evident in his decision to hand Cana the captain’s armband, and having become the first Albanian to play in the North- East, the midfielder is determined to spread a positive message about his nation.
“I always want to give back to my family, my people, my country,” he said. “I always want to be on top as a man and a footballer because it’s important to give a good image of my country.
“One of the most famous people in the world, Mother Theresa, was Albanian. We have produced many great people, but it is important to keep on spreading the word.”