Special Report: Albania’s Rising Eagles

My father and I had just been hypnotized by the first few weeks of English Premier League soccer when an international break changed the routine. Any interruption from the daily drummage of hard tackling unpredictability is unwanted to fans like us. However, international breaks are a vital time for players; some are looking to rest; another majority have even bigger matches ahead of them.  

The European Championship takes place in France in two years, basically Europe’s version of the World Cup and with a change of rules more teams are able to qualify. Therefore, the hype was real. We didn’t have any difficulty finding a match, Portugal versus Albania, on a local station. Now, we could’ve watched Germany against Scotland, maybe on paper the better choice but I knew more about the fixture, the groups, the line-ups than my father did. Plus our incessant knack to root for the underdog drew us together. We grabbed our food and sat down.

Enter Albania, a country that formulated its football federation in 1930, twenty years after its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Although the Albanian federation did not actively play a competitive match until 1946, a home loss against Yugoslavia, they were accepted into FIFA in 1930 and in 1954 became one of the founding members of UEFA, the Union European Football Associations.

Hardly ever on the world stage for football, Albania was a direct refuge for Kosovars during the Kosovo war in the late 90’s. Having recently been accepted into the European Union, this Balkan country, situated above Greece, bordered by Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and just one boat trip across the Adriatic from Italy, was about to send shockwaves through footballing Europe.  

Portugal had an off night in Oviero. Cristiano Ronaldo, their enigmatic captain, was sidelined with an injury so sporting winger Nani wore the armband. Even without their talisman Portugal still had quality and it showed. Ricardo Costa fumbled the ball on the six before he could place it far corner, Nani shot two lasers wide and the Albanians cleared another chance off the goalline all before the fortieth minute mark.

By the time the second half started the Albanians had defended stoutly with only one weak chance to show for it. That all changed in the 52nd minute.

Odise Roshi slipped past second half substitute Ivan Cavaliero and crossed the ball into the box. On the other end was young forward Bekim Balaj who acrobatically volleyed the ball past Portugal’s number one, Rui Patricio.

The celebrations were subdued, at least in the stands. Balaj celebrated with his teammates and their coach, Gianni De Biasi, looked confident if not smug. In retrospect, the goal came more as a shock to me than anything else. To fans hoping for an exciting upset but not really expecting it, my father and I were enraptured.

Portugal like any team playing at home did not give up without a fight. They pressed harder; Ricardo Horta hit the post; Pepe misfired that deflection over the bar and Nani missed another chance. The score withstood. One-nil to the Albanians.

In the months that followed that historical win (the first time an Albanian team had beaten Portugal in five meetings), Albania drew with Denmark 1-1 in Tirana. They found themselves leading against a side ripe with young talent and were unlucky to come away with a tie. The Danes scored a late equalizer.

In Belgrade they were accosted by Serbian fans storming the field courtesy of the long and bloody history between both nations but luckily came out unscathed and with a Serbian forfeit. In March they beat the Armenians 2-1 at home before beating out the French team in early June, a win deemed even more historic than the victory against the Portuguese even though it was only a friendly.

Despite those groundbreaking results, Albanian was only in third place behind Denmark and Portugal in European Qualifying. They were hardly televised (it was mere luck we found them that day) and not many in the communal football world even knew where the country was located.

Last summer the nation was gripped by the World Cup. One Eastern European nation, Bosnia and Herzegovina, had made their debut after only twenty years of independence. After an unfortunate bit of luck against eventual runners up Argentina, Bosnia faded out into obscurity, losing to Nigeria and nearly losing to a weak Iranian side.

Ten years before the most recent World Cup, the Greeks somehow, unbelievably, won the European Championships, stalwartly defending their net at all costs, taking the one or two chances they had on the counterattack and upsetting nearly all of Europe’s strongest teams.

So, was the Albanian side I had watched last September more akin to the Bosnia team that petered out at the World Cup or did they have some of the same magic that their Balkan counterparts did? I decided to do more digging.

I learned that even though the Albanian National Anthem was not sung at the World Cup there were more than enough players who knew it there.

Defender Shkodran Mustafi featured in the first match for the eventual World Champion Germans. Xherdan Shaqiri scored a hat trick against Honduras in Switzerland’s route of the CONCACAF side, elevating the Swiss team as well as his four other Albanian teammates, Blerim Dzemaili, Admir Mehmedi, Valon Behrami and Granit Xhaka to the knockout round. Adnan Januzaj, of Manchester United, made his international debut for Belgium, choosing the country of his childhood over his Kosovar-Albanian heritage.

With all these players and the players involved in the historical victories against Portugal and France, the Albanian national team could be twice as clinical, twice as volatile and twice of a threat. So why did these world class players choose Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, over the country of their heritage?

Of course a little of that has to do with the identity a player has growing up, playing youth football in a specific country. If I was born in the nation of my heritage, Poland, or even if my parents had been born in Poland, emigrated here, gave birth to me and I subsequently spent my entire life in the United States I would hardly feel Polish. I think this is at least part of the reason why players opted out of Albanians national squad. But surely, at least for the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, a player born closer to Albania than Switzerland, the country of his birth would be closer to his heart.

Albanian football was born out of turbulent years of civil unrest in the Balkan region. Therefore it is no surprise that it has taken the nation this long to make noise in the competitive European playground. Shaqiri in particular was born in Gjilan, a province in eastern Kosovo before moving to Switzerland the following year. Although Gjilan is in Kosovo, Kosovo itself only just gained representation in European football. At the time Shaqiri’s career started, Kosovar players represented Albania or no one.

Shaqiri’s ambition is understandable. Albania is hardly akin to that of one of the top teams in Europe, especially twenty years ago. There would be no way no for him to foresee Albania’s slow progress towards a major European tournament. Maybe then Shaqiri is the quintessential representation of the rise of Albanian football. Or perhaps Shaqiri made a mistake and he would have a better chance winning a major trophy with Albania. The recent run of results may solidify that point.

We may never know about Xherdan. The only factual conclusion I can make is that in both the Portugal match and the Denmark match and the historical win against France, Albania was outshot, out-possessed and at times outplayed. The only result that matters is the one of the scoreboard and the identity the Albanian side has forged. When they compete against a team more skilled than them, their defensive organization, counter-attacking capabilities and their mental fortitude are more aligned with that of the 2004 Greek champions than with the 2014 Bosnian underachievers.

It is not just internationally where Albania is thriving though. At the domestic level, Albanian football is on the rise as well. KF Skenderbue will be competing this August to qualify for their first ever Champions League group stage spot.

Having won the Albanian Superliga for four consecutive years, surpassing the two biggest clubs in the country, Dinamo Tirana and KF Tirana, Skenderbue have fallen short of their European mark every year since then.

Losing to Cypriot side APOEL in 2011-2012 and Hungarian side Debrecen in 2012-2013 put the Albanian champions no closer to their goals of a berth on the biggest European stage. Things hadn’t changed in 2013-2014. Despite beating Neftchi Baku in Azerbaijan they lost to another Euro-Asian side in Shakhter Karagandy.

It would be one more year and another disappointing result against Belarussian side BATE Borisov before Skenderbue reached the play-off round in 2015-2016, beating Northern Irish side Crusaders and Moldovan champions Milsami.

Just the very idea that the Albanian champions must play one more two legged tie to even qualify for the Champions League group stage is a testament to how hard it is for a smaller country in Europe to gain access to the most prestigious competition in the footballing world. Yet the Albanians have a good chance of becoming the first Albanian club ever to enter group play.

What might be harder to believe is that not five years ago Skenderbue was facing relegation, sitting in last place in the Albanian Superliga. A complete turnaround in terms of ownership took place. Many successful Albanian businessmen invested and revamped the squad.

They brought in 37 year old goalkeeper Orges Shehi and welcomed back 36 year old captain Bledi Shkembi. It would be fair to say the spine of Skenderbue’s team is past their prime however with the likes of Hamdi Salihi, another rather recent signing and Skenderbeu’s top goalscorer in qualifying with five goals in four games and young Bernard Berisha age is not the only theme at work.

Skenderbue is one of the most heavily supported clubs in Albania and their stadium housing 12,000 supporters is one of the largest. Along with those former stars Shehi and Shkembi the new money owners simultaneously invested forcibly in youth and purchased a few more players to complete a squad that is now the strongest in the country.

Skenderbue’s league play picks up in the end of August. A promising start to the season via Champions Leauge qualifying coupled with surges of international confidence, the SuperLiga champions have every chance of winning a fifth straight title. Whether or not they can take things to the next level depends on the players and coaching. In the first round of the playoff tie this past Wednesday the Red and Whites lost on a late away goal. Josip Pavaric scored a heartrending 93rd minute goal for Dinamo Zagreb.

However, all is not lost. Skenderbue outplayed their opponents beneath a rocking home crowd and have every possibility to score a few goals in the return leg. If one comes early and silences the Croatian’s fans, anything is possible.

Contributing Writer: Kyle Clemens

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