Albania out of Euro 2016 but etched in a nation's pride
By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania's football team were knocked out of the European Championship in the group stages but they were feted on their return home on Thursday as if they had won the tournament.
Despite their early exit, the debutants were hailed as heroes after scoring their first goal and winning their first game at a major tournament against Romania.
Sitting atop a double-decker bus painted in Albania's red and black colours, the players were greeted by cheering fans who braved the sweltering heat as they drove through streets which had been cleared to help them travel quickly.
It may have been down to the heat that the crowd welcoming them at a Tirana square was smaller than when they beat Armenia to secure qualification for the finals but the reception was just as heartfelt.
Team captain Lorik Cana was handed the key to the city in a sign of respect and a government minister promised to grant the team diplomatic passports, hailing them as the best ambassadors for the impoverished Balkan nation that is seeking to join the European Union.
"You have given us what we have been missing for decades," said Skender Bellova, a football radio commentator.
"In 60 years of commentating, I have never felt these emotions," Bellova added, summing up the feelings of Albanians everywhere.
The team built over the last four years by Italian coach Gianni De Biasi featured mostly ethnic Albanian players originally from Kosovo and Macedonia who grew up in Europe, securing it a massive fan base in France.
"I think the soccer world is taking us seriously. If miracles could be built on defeats, what we did in France could be the start of a miracle," De Biasi said.
"I will continue to stay on to keep working towards that miracle," he told a meeting at Prime Minister Edi Rama's office.
Rama, whose government granted the team a bonus of 1 million euros (766,855.83 pounds), said they had played ball as equals with Europe's best.
"Your names will be etched at the entrance of the new national soccer stadium," Rama told the team.
(Reporting By Benet Koleka; Editing by Ian Chadband)