BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
EGLI KAJA has dipped into his own pocket to ensure his parents are able to witness the proudest moment of his career.
However, the Livingston winger knows nothing will ever repay the debt he owes dad Krenar and mum Arjana.
Kaja was just two years old when they made the life-changing decision to flee their war-torn homeland of Kosovo.
It was 1999 and, like much of the country, his birthplace in the Ferizaji District was in a state of flux following a conflict that claimed more than 13,000 lives. He was too young to appreciate the challenges faced by his family and, to this day, they tend not to burden him with tales of a traumatic period.
Nevertheless, Kaja is acutely aware of the sacrifices made and the risks taken in search of peace and prosperity for him and his sister.
“I was just a baby when we were in Kosovo so I didn’t really experience what it was like at the time,” said Kaja
“It isn’t something my parents talk about but I know it must have been a really tough time and it took a lot of courage and determination for them to get to the UK.
“They were determined to build a life for me and my sister and every decision they made has been for us.
“They made huge sacrifices; left their own families behind, left jobs and took a massive risk.
“I’ll always be grateful for everything they gave me.”
The Kaja family settled in Middlesbrough before moving to London when Egli was 10 years of age. His talent was swiftly spotted by AFC Wimbledon and he remains on the Dons’ books to this day.
“My parents did everything they could to help me with my football – taking me all over the place for training, through the rain and snow,” he recalled.
Consequently, the notion that his parents may not be in the stadium for his international debut is unthinkable to Kaja, who was called up for last month’s 0-0 draw against Jordan and 2-0 defeat in Israel but did not make his bow.
“They have work commitments and things but I said to them ‘I’ll pay for you to come over!’” he said. “So they are flying out on Friday and staying until Wednesday, for the Scotland and Wales games.
“Hopefully I’ll make my debut in front of them, given everything they did for me. I know how proud that will make them.”
Kaja, who has made eight appearances on loan with the Lions this season, is relishing the steep learning curve of international football – and admits he has been nipping the ear of ‘inspirational’ Serie A superstar Elseid Hysaj.
“It’s a brilliant experience to work alongside guys who play for big European teams like Napoli [Hysaj] and Basel [Taulant Xhaka],” Kaja continued.
“You would be crazy not to talk to these guys, learn everything you can and get a sense of what it takes to get there.
“When you speak to Elseid Hysaj, the thing he is always emphasising is that the gaps aren’t that big. You aren’t born at the top level – it’s about working hard and making the best of your talent.
“People think ‘you can’t get to that level’. You can. He’s an inspiration as to what can be achieved if you believe in yourself, work hard and have a bit of luck.”
And Kaja knows that if anyone can help his development, it will be demanding Albania boss Christian Panucci, who has taken the drive that saw him win 14 major honours, 57 Italy caps and represent Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea into his coaching career.
“His expectations are high, he demands a lot,” smiled Kaja. “He has played for the biggest clubs in the world, lifted trophies and has always been surrounded by top players. He is a winner.
“That shines through in his coaching, especially with those boys playing in the bigger leagues. He expects them to turn up for their country, be leaders and deliver on the pitch.”
Those expectations will be heightened at the Loro Borici Stadium on Saturday evening, with Kaja acknowledging that nothing but victory will do for the hosts.
He added: “There was a real sense of disappointment last month. I think we dominated the game against Israel [2-0 defeat] but gave away two really sloppy goals. It means this is a must-win game against Scotland.”