The celebrations in the city of Tirana on 11 October 2015 were some of the wildest ever seen for the small nation of Albania. The restructuring of the European Championships had seen various doors being opened for some of the smaller teams in the continent and the European side created history by making it to their first-ever major international competition.
Albania had just done the unthinkable by making it to Euro 2016 and it wasn’t without incident. One of the countries to be formed by the breakup of Yugoslavia, the region had been littered with various wars and conflicts. Even with tension spilling over regarding the running of the nation, football was and is one of the few things that gets people together in the nation of almost 3 million.
The incredible support backing the team
The Tifozat Kuq e Zi ( Red and black fans) is a supporter’s association which backs the Albanian national side. Founded in 2003, it has been at the centre of most good things in Albanian football as the organisation helps supporters plan trips to various games and sells merchandise to keep them afloat.
Many footballers have praised the Tifozat Kuq e Zi for their unbelievable support during Albania’s games, especially when the side does travel. There have been many disputes between the sporting bodies of the country and the supporter’s group, but all that was put aside when the country beat the likes of Armenia, Denmark and most importantly, Serbia, in their Euro 2016 qualifying group.
A journey not without incident
Albania, like many other smaller nations participating in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, didn’t really expect to make it through to the main event. They were ranked 40th by UEFA at the start of the campaign, behind countries such as Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and even Armenia.
The football-mad nation did have a bit of an advantage in their group as it only featured four other teams, though facing Serbia was always going to be a huge issue for both sides, given the history between the two sides.
It was a little surprising to see the pair being put into the same group as UEFA had ensured Spain and Gibraltar were kept in different groups while Armenia and Azerbaijan were kept apart. The clash between Serbia and Armenia was to have a huge say in the final standings of the group and not the way anyone would have expected.
Portugal were the runaway winners of the group but Albania surprised many by edging out Denmark and Serbia. The match between Albania and Serbia in Belgrade was disrupted by the “drone” incident and sparked clashes between the two sets of players and fans.
After many deliberations, Albania were awarded a 3-0 win over Serbia while the Serbs were handed a 3-point deduction due to their failure in organising the game with adequate security measures. Albania only lost two games in their qualifying campaign and were set for their biggest stage yet.
The Italian job
The genius behind this unparalleled rise in football is Gianni De Biasi, who holds Italian and Albanian citizenship. The 60-year-old took up the job in 2011 and not many expected him to stay in the position for long, let alone take his side to Euro 2016.
The Italian didn’t have the greatest of time at Udinese, his last job, but was determined to change the way Albania played football. While the manager did bemoan the lack of infrastructure and good players in the Albanian league, he did have an incredible talent pool to work with.
Instead of relying on only players within the country, he took to his vast scouting network to search for players who had Albanian heritage and found a huge talent pool with players based in Italy, Switzerland and even Germany.
The manager even tried to rope in Adnan Januzaj to play for the Albanian team but that didn’t turn out to be fruitful, nevertheless, a ragtag bunch of players, who couldn’t make it to other national squads were ready to make history.
One such example was Taulant Xhaka, whose more famous brother Granit plays for Switzerland and the two faced off against each other in the opening game of their Euro 2016 group. Even their captain, the inspirational Lorik Cana takes a lot of pride about the multi-heritage that is present in the team.
“The team contains players who are more numerous outside the country than inside it. It is a symbol of national pride”, said the defender to AFP.
Bright days ahead for a growing footballing nation
Gone are the days under communist leader Enver Hoxha, who famously outlawed beards, and football teams coming to the country were often invited for a shave. This is a new era for football in the tiny state of Albania.
Euro 2016 might not be the tournament that defines their future but it is a good start. In Gianni De Biasi, they have someone who has turned things around slowly and steadily for the national team and has made them tough to beat.
France and Switzerland had a really tough time to get their victories but the performances of this Albanian side were lauded by one and all, in fact, Albania even defeated France 1-0 in a friendly before the tournament, their first ever win against a top 15 side in the world of football.
Albania isn’t as well-known as some of its neighbours, such as Serbia or Montenegro but they have achieved the incredible here. Euro 2016 has seen a lot of support for Iceland and Wales but Albania should be the team that gets the most amount of respect for where they are at the moment.
A region ravaged by wars is now united, dreaming about what the future holds for them as they look to do better in their next set of qualification fixtures. As De Biasi congratulated his long-time friend Claudio Ranieri for doing the unthinkable with Leicester, the country of Albania and millions of ethnic Albanians across the world are doing the same thing, thanking the Italian-Albanian for making their dreams come true. Albania is here, it has taken Europe by storm and the World Cup would be their next target.