Albania weren’t even ranked within FIFA’s top 100 less than a decade ago. Now they have earned the right to represent their tiny country at the European Championships in France.
The Panenka looks at the story of one of the unlikeliest of journeys in football as the eagles rose from footballing obscurity to rub shoulders with hosts France at Euro 2016.
Albania secured qualification to Euro 2016 with a 3-0 victory over Armenia. Days before their dreams of reaching their first major tournament had been dashed after a crushing 2-0 defeat at home to bitter rivals Serbia in their penultimate group game.
Immediately after the defeat, Albania’s president, Edi Rama, decided to intervene. “I met the players after the game and they were devastated,” he told CNN. “I talked to them and said, ‘Look, when you try to reach the top of the mountain you have to deal with stronger winds. Now its time to bring out your character.'”
The 3-0 victory in the following game equaled the national team’s highest ever margin of victory and led to wild celebrations across the country with fireworks being let off long into the night. In Tirana, upon the players’ return home, President Rama was on hand once again to welcome the players. This time on television where he addressed the nation alongside captain Lorik Cana and handed out medals to the squad as gratification of the achievement.
President Rama now believes that through the national team entering Europe’s consciousness they can use it as leverage to gain admission to the EU. The country has faced a damning history of difficulties throughout the twentieth century. From occupation during the Second World War to the totalitarian dictatorship of the 70s and 80s, as well as the political and socio-economic difficulties of surrounding Balkan states. Albania has been given new hope for the future through the success of it football team in the past year.
Nobody had predicted Albania to come close to qualifying for Euro 2016. In the five-team group containing Portugal, Denmark, Serbia and Armenia, Albania were expected to finish fourth at best. However, the black and reds surprised the watching world by finishing second on 14 points. A whopping seven behind group winners Portugal but two crucial points ahead of third placed Denmark to secure an automatic qualifying spot at the European Championship.
“When I said Albania could do it, they laughed at me,” said the national team coach, Gianni De Biasi, who took the job in 2011 after a mixed career in his native Italy.
Qualifying Group I was paid particular attention to because of the drawing together of rivals Albania and Serbia. Tensions between the countries have always been strained dating as far back as territory disagreements during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the twentieth century conflicts such as the Balkan Wars in the early twentieth century as well as the Second World War and the Yugoslavian civil war in the 90s the countries have been enemies.
This resentment spilled onto the football pitch when the two teams met in the first of two qualifying games in Belgrade in October 2014. With the scores goalless, a drone carrying a flag inscribed with a message supporting Albanian claims to a Serbian territory was flown into the stadium causing a riot. The politically charged scenes caused the game to be abandoned with many Albanian players fearing for their lives.
UEFA’s initial reaction was to award a 3-0 victory to Serbia and fine each nation a sum of around $100,000. Serbia was also docked 3 points and ordered to play 2 games behind closed doors because of the crowd trouble. Upon appeal the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned the 3-0 Serbian victory to make it a 3-0 Albanian victory instead, a victory which put Albania joint second in Group I.
Never one to shy away from a public display of national pride, Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, wrote on Facebook. “That is European justice! 3 points for the Red-and-Black National Team in Belgrade!”
In the return leg Albania were handed a 2-0 defeat via two crushing goals scored in the depths of injury time. Albanians will never shy away from an opportunity to trash Serbia however as, notwithstanding the loss against Serbia and after securing qualification, an emotional and tearful Lorik Cana said, “despite beating us, they will now watch us in France while drinking beer in front of the TV.”
The political context and depth of resentment between the two nations may undoubtedly overshadow what happened in Group I but that should not diminish the significance of Albania’s unlikely achievement.
A stunning volley from striker Bekim Balaj helped De Biasi’s team smash-and-grab its way to a win in Lisbon on the first matchday of qualification. In the games that followed they remained unbeaten for four games until welcoming Portugal to Elbasan where they narrowly lost 1-0. At this point a win from their last two games would secure qualification to Euro 2016. They did just that against Armenia.
Impressively, Albania also met top class opposition in a succession of friendlies between qualifiers. In November 2014 they traveled to Paris and drew 1-1 with France before losing 1-0 to Italy in Genoa a few days later. This clever management is a statement of the national team’s ambition to imprint themselves on the consciousness of the international scene.
Euro 2016 will be Albania’s first ever-major tournament and they will have plenty of support from around the world. Albanian immigrants spread to neighboring countries after the collapse of the communist regime in 1991 and the ensuing economic crisis. It is estimated that between 1989 and 2001 nearly one million people fled the country. During Euro 2016 Albania will be able to rely on the support of an estimated 300,000 Albanians in Switzerland, 300,000 in Germany, 500,000 in Italy and a believed 200,000 in North America, plus many more from other nearby countries such as Greece and Turkey.
Having a spread of players with Albanian heritage across the continent has worked in the national team’s favor in recent years while there have been a large amount of players who have turned down the opportunity to represent Albania. For example, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka are both of Albanian decent but chose to represent Switzerland.
Granit Xhaka’s brother, Taulant, who plays for Basel, did choose to represent Albania and is likely to be in the squad for Euro 2016. The pair will face each other in Group A when the two national teams meet. Furthermore, in light of recent events, the Xhaka brothers could also qualify to play for Kosovo, who have recently been granted UEFA membership. It has been suggested that the impact of Kosovo being granted UEFA membership will have a detriment effect on the Albanian team who could see many of their players switch allegiance.
Within the Albania squad there is a strong Italian connection due to coach Gianni de Biasi. Goalkeeper Erit Berisha of Lazio and 21-year-old defender Elseid Hysaj who signed for Napoli from Empoli are both likely to be in the squad for Euro 2016.
Albania boasts a savvy squad recruited from the diaspora of Albanian immigrants across Europe amassing a squad with players from leagues in Greece, Turkey, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France.
Needless to say Euro 2016 is the biggest moment in the history of Albanian football. They will play their first ever game ever in a major international tournament on June 11 against Switzerland in Lens, before facing France and Romania.