It has been widely accepted in the past couple of decades that the standard of club football, the UEFA Champions League, in particular, has surpassed international football on offer. So much so, that it isn’t uncommon for clubs and football associations to lock horns on the availability of players (or the lack of it).However, international tournaments have their own charm, not merely because of the national pride at stake, but also to celebrate the rise of a giant-killer, or an unexpected success story. Colombia and Costa Rica were two such glaring examples in the 2014 FIFA World Cup at Brazil.Though the recent expansion of the number of countries participating at the 2016 European Championships to 24 teams was always going to bring in new faces, this piece profiles five teams who still defied expectations to qualify for the mega event to be held in France next summer.
Better known as an Eastern European nation with a long history of ethnic strife, Albania surprised one and all with their qualification to next year’s showpiece event. Not only is it Albania’s first appearance in an international tournament thus far, it is also the first time they’ve finished higher than fourth in any World Cup or Euro qualifying campaign, finishing second behind Portugal in their group.
Admittedly, Albania got lucky with their abandoned game against Serbia, which was awarded 3-0 in their favour and condemned Denmark to the playoffs, but that doesn’t take any credit away from their defence, which conceded only five goals, fewer than heavyweights Italy (seven) or World Champions Germany (nine). A 1-0 win over France in a friendly in March, which followed a 1-1 draw earlier, goes a long way in proving their potential. However, struggles against Portugal and Serbia (1-0 and 2-0 defeats, respectively) would suggest that Albania would end up somewhere in the middle of the pack next year.
The presence of former Marseille stalwart Lorik Cana in defence and Lazio goalkeeper Etrit Berisha between the sticks should prove to be a testing proposition for opposition forwards, and understandably the hopes this young nation will ride on them.