Albanian football’s Euro odyssey
The announcement of an expanded format for the 2016 European Championship was received with eager anticipation by the continent’s footballing minnows, improving their chances of reaching the tournament proper.
Amongst the legion of lower-profile teams, the home nations are well represented, with the exception of the unfortunate Scotland, eliminated but not for the want of trying.
“Managing a measly 10 goals in their eight games, their efficient, defensive displays carried Albania to France”
Wales have reached their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup, when a 17-year-old Brazilian shattered the spirit of a quite formidable side, but that kid was Pele after all.
Northern Ireland surprised everyone by comfortably securing their passage to France this summer, while the Republic struggled through a helter-skelter campaign to crash the party via play-offs.
Away from these isles, though, and away to the southern side of the Balkan region, where Albania finished second in a group containing Portugal, Serbia and Denmark to astound the status quo and reach their maiden major tournament.
Managing a measly 10 goals in their eight games, their efficient, defensive displays carried them to France.
Albania is home to a mere 2.8 million people, although they are a significant diaspora across much of the Balkans, Greece and sundry central European countries.
It gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, later becoming a satellite state for the USSR, eventually regaining full national autonomy after the implosion of the Soviet regime in the early 90s.
Suffice to say, Albania are minnows on the global sporting scene, and excitement amongst the nation’s avid football followers about reaching Euro 2016 is off the scale.
I spoke to a number of Albanians living in London, learning about their hopes for the approaching tournament and hearing their thoughts on Albanian football.
Edi, 21, has been in the capital since the age of 12, is now a keen Arsenal fan and says he has no real interest in the Albanian Superliga. Yet he regularly returns to his homeland and takes immense pride in his nation’s recent footballing exploits.
“I never saw it happening, we were excited with the qualifying group because we had some good games to look forward to, but even with the expanded tournament I never thought we would get to France,” he said.
“I won’t ask for much more from this team, but I expect a really solid performance from Lorik Cana. He’s a model captain and his pride to wear the shirt can’t be matched. I think the whole of Albania would be happy just to see us get one result there.”
“I don’t care about my team anymore, I think most of Albania has stopped caring about the league, we have room for only one side in our hearts”
In the homely confines of a snooker club in Dalston, Karim a 46-year-old lifelong KF Tirana fan, has sought solace in the national team’s triumphs to soften the blow of his own side’s struggles.
“You couldn’t understand this, every year I had to watch Albania finish last or second-bottom, now we have actually qualified!
“The credit goes to De Biasi [Gianni De Biasi, the national team’s coach], he is a genius in my eyes. We have become so tough to beat, you can see how he has worked on defence, defence and defence.
“I don’t care about my team anymore, I think most of Albania has stopped caring about the league, we have room for only one side in our hearts this year.”
Karim is entirely correct in citing Albania’s defence as the catalyst for a successful campaign.
“With a mean defence and a heavy dose of the surprise element, it is plausible that Albania can muster a shock or two”
Remarkably, the side kept a clean sheet in every away game they played during qualification, the first side ever to do so. In total they conceded a miserly 5 goals en route to their second-place finish.
“Overall 2015 was probably the best year in Albanian football history,” beams Jak, a 39 year-old self proclaimed footballing acolyte.
“My team KF Skënderbeu Korçë became the first team from the Albanian league to reach Europe. To me this is even bigger than league titles, we are the first to this, so I’m massively proud.”
The mood amongst Albanian fans in this corner of East London is of sheer jubilation and respectful appreciation. Not one person I spoke to sees their team going far in the tournament.
Yet, with a mean defence and a heavy dose of the surprise element, it is plausible that Albania can muster a shock or two.