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Jack Flanagan is back, this time with a write up about Albania, and their journey to Euro 2016.
21st November 2007. Albania have just lost 6-1 to Romania in Bucharest in their final qualifying match for Euro 2008. Romania won the group, and subsequently qualified for that summer’s tournament, whereas Albania, who had never attended the European Championships in their entire history, finished 18 points behind them. In that qualification sequence, Albania had 2 wins from 12 games. Such performance had become the norm for a country with little to no competitive footballing success to speak of.
A change of staff and 2 years further down the line, and the situation was equally bleak. The qualification for the 2010 World Cup featured 1 win – against lowly Malta. At home. Surely things would fare better in a couple of years’ time? It can’t get any worse than this? No, and yes, it can. In the qualification for Euro 2012, Albania finished with a mere 9 points from 10 games, featuring 2 wins, both of which were 1-goal victories against Luxembourg and Belarus. Arguably, this campaign was the worst of the lot. The Luxembourgers got their revenge by beating Albania 2-1 at home. Before that game, Luxembourg had only ever won 5 games in Euro qualification history.
That infamous night in Luxembourg was just shy of 5 years ago. A few months after it, an Italian by the name of Gianni de Biasi, out of management for over a year after resigning from Udinese, was given a call whilst riding his bike. He knew very little about Albania, but apparently the Albanians knew about him. With this swift phone call, fortunes turned on a pivot.
Original Photo Credit: FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images
Albania, as a country, has had a difficult history. For almost 50 years after World War 2, the country was ruled with the iron fist of Enver Hoxha, who isolated the country from both East and West, and kept it as one of the most impoverished nations in Europe. To put things into perspective – private cars were not allowed in the country until the beginning of the 1990’s, and their GDP in 1990 was comparable to other Southern European countries in the 1910’s. Clearly, this means that a lack of funds have been available for football development in the country for an extended period of time. Consequently, Albania has never had its chance in the limelight in any way, shape or form – until now.
With all of this in mind, it’s hard to believe that in June 2016, just 5 years and one set of qualifiers from their last embarrassment, Albania have not only become a resolute, committed team, but they have qualified, for the first time, for this summer’s Euros. It is an achievement so ridiculous you have to pinch yourself to believe it. How on earth have they done it?
Albania were drawn in Group I with Portugal, Denmark, Serbia, Armenia and a phantom France (since France are hosting Euro 2016, they had already qualified). Not a particularly easy group on first look. In fact, when it was drawn, you could make an argument for Albania perhaps being the weakest side in it, along with Armenia. But how they proved the footballing world wrong.
Their first game was away to Portugal, probably the toughest fixture of the campaign. Little was expected of them, but a stunning Bekim Balaj volley in the 52nd minute secured a 1-0 win in Portugal, and arguably the greatest result in Albanian football history. De Biasi set them up as a counter-attacking unit – one looking to absorb Portuguese pressure rather than meet fire with fire, as they knew they couldn’t do it. Playing to their defensive and organisational strengths proved successful, and so did their counter attacking, since Balaj scored that volley on one of their sweeping counters. It was the blueprint to follow for success.
After that came a respectable 1-1 draw against a Denmark side who only equalised in the 81st minute. Then came a vital win against Armenia at home, where for the first time Albania demonstrated that they are a team to be taken seriously. They were behind for much of the game, but scored twice in the last 15 minutes to steal victory. All good teams possess strong minds, and after that comeback the resoluteness of Albania’s squad was for everyone to see.
All of a sudden, Albania looked unbeatable. They travelled to Copenhagen last September in another tricky tie, and escaped with a point and a clean sheet. Albania were finally beaten a few days later, at home to Portugal. But not humiliated – beaten via a Miguel Veloso header in the 92nd minute in a game Portugal were fortunate to win. Following this came a 2-0 home defeat to Serbia, but once again, it is worth pointing out that it was 0-0 for 91 minutes. Before the Serbia game, Albania had conceded 3 goals in the entire qualification phase.
Their final game was an emotional 3-0 victory away to bottom-of-the-group Armenia, in which the distant dream of qualification became full-scale reality. In all, Albania finished 2nd, qualifying automatically, and conceding just 5 goals in 8 games. The Eagles had arrived.
Albania tend to sit deep, using two of their best traits to their advantage – experience and toughness. They are generally difficult to break down, as proven by the paltry 5 goals they conceded in qualifying – considering the calibre of opponents they were facing, this is a pretty good return. Portugal, with one of the world’s best in attack, scored just once in 180 minutes against them.
Original Photo Credit: David Rogers/Getty Images
Their captain and inspirational leader, Lorik Cana, has built a solid career playing for the likes of Marseille and Lazio, and will be seen as the man to hold things together at the back. Elsewhere, Elseid Hysaj, the Napoli right-back, has established himself this year as a top-class talent – you could even make a case for him being the best young right-back in Serie A at the moment.
Elsewhere, the hard-working and tough tackling Taulant Xhaka in the middle embodies the Albanian spirit and will help to carry defensive nous and awareness from the back into the midfield, also acting as the side’s key link between the defence and attack.
Clearly, an emphasis on defence means a compromise in the attacking department. This is largely because De Biasi is tactically playing to Albania’s strengths, which is not going forward. Apart from Skhelzen Gashi, who will most likely start out wide, there aren’t many goal scorers in the team. Albania will look to frustrate and take their chances, something that will no doubt be a theme for them in France as it got them there in the first place.
That’s just how De Biasi likes it. Under his leadership, Albania will never be a team to pour forward, or display attacking exuberance. The reason Albania have surpassed all expectations in qualifying for this summer’s Euros is because of spirit and hard work. Almost all of their players wear their heart on their sleeve and realise they are significantly better as part of the team than individually.
Nothing sums up the character in the Albanian squad more than their now infamous game against Serbia in their 3rd match of qualifying in 2014. At the time, Albania had taken a shock lead at the top of the group after beating Portugal and drawing against Denmark. It was all to play for.
Original Photo Credit: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images
Serbia and Albania have a long and complicated history as Balkan nations, one that is much too complicated to write about in full here. To do that would involve writing a thesis. So I will try and break it down in comprehensible terms. Aside from Kosovo, Serbia and Albania are effectively neighbours. Most of their modern disagreements come down to Kosovo itself. Part of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo is a region that is ethnically Albanian, but to the Serbs, it is not an Albanian territory. This largely hinges on the fact that it was part of Yugoslavia, and Albania wasn’t, but also the fact that many historical battles that helped to generate the Serb national image were fought and won in Kosovo. Serbs consider it an integral part of their culture. Albanians, of course, say that the region is ethnically Albanian (which it is) so it is theirs, not Serbia’s. This all led to the Kosovo War in the late 90’s, which generated thousands of Albanian refugees as Serbia looked to “ethnically cleanse” the area that was rightfully theirs. For these rather complicated reasons, they don’t get on.
Drawing the two together in a qualifying group was a risk that became a full-blown controversy. When Albania faced Serbia in Belgrade, Serbian fans chanted, “Kill the Albanians” and threw flares onto the pitch, amongst other objects, such as coins and chunks of concrete. Even the Albanian national anthem was whistled and shouted at. In response, a now infamous drone carrying the flag for Greater Albania was flown above the players’ heads. All you need to know about the map for Greater Albania is that a Greater Albania includes Kosovo. The Serbs, understandably, didn’t like this. So Stefan Mitrović, the Serbian centre-half, pulled the drone down. After that, all hell broke lose. Bekim Balaj, the Albanian hero from Portugal, ran over and took the flag. A Serbian fan with a plastic stool – the same fan beaten up by Lorik Cana, then hit Balaj with it. A mass pitch invasion and all sorts of on-pitch injuries, accompanied with nasty accusations by the Albanian players of being attacked by match stewards and riot police, followed. When the dust settled, the Court of Arbitration for Sport gave Albania an automatic 3-0 win, and docked Serbia 3 points.
The reason I am telling you this is that this very game summed up, for me, what Albania are all about. They play for their country as if their lives depended on it. On return to Albania, the team that survived Belgrade became immediate national heroes, for attempting to play through the barrage of objects and insults and also due to their show of national pride when Mitrović pulled the drone down. For Albanians, this was just another type of adversity that has helped to bind the team and make them stronger. Such determination to succeed in adversity has served them brilliantly in qualification, and it will be interesting to see where it takes them this summer.
Albania’s group consists of France, Switzerland and Romania. Although France and Switzerland should theoretically have enough to overpower Albania, football isn’t that simple.
If France struggle in their opener against Romania, nerves, insecurity and the weight of expectation may well follow through to the Albania match. With Albania’s intention to frustrate, they may end up working up the French to a degree that they get a result. Stranger things have happened in football.
Equally, the game against Switzerland is not your average tournament matchup. Many ethnic Albanians have elected to play for Switzerland as naturalised citizens – players such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, arguably Switzerland’s two best players. Thus, the game against Switzerland will feel like a rivalry, in which anything can happen.
As for Romania, they are the one side that Albania are capable of beating, since they play a similar way and lack individual stars. Triumph in the Albania/Romania matchup may well come down to spirit and energy, and Albania’s 6-1 hammering by Romania just under 10 years ago will surely linger in the memory.
Consequently, Albania may well cause an upset at the Euros. There are infinite examples of how far team spirit can get you in football, and Albania certainly do not lack that. Playing without pressure and enjoying the moment for what it is could well spark the incredible. It’s the nature of the sport we love, the sport where “on a given Sunday”, anything is possible.
Albania are without question one to keep an eye on at the Euros. Not for their style of play, or because they are likely to progress far into the tournament, but because they embody the competitive spirit of sport. They are one of the few groups that can return home after the tournament without a single point to their name, and still be received as national heroes. For all of the adversity Albania as a country has faced in its history – economically, politically and on the football pitch, you can’t help but wish them well on their quest.
Written by Jack Flanagan