How Al­ba­nia won a mil­lion hearts

CityPress - - Sport - MONDLI MAKHANYA mondli.makhanya@city­

To­gether with North­ern Ire­land and Ice­land, they were the cute out­siders of Euro 2016. Hav­ing qual­i­fied for the com­pe­ti­tion for the first time, the Al­ba­ni­ans were adopted by neu­trals as the sec­ond team of choice. Yes, no se­ri­ous­minded per­son would have bet se­ri­ous money on them but, what the hell, they were cheered on by mil­lions.

While some pa­tro­n­is­ingly at­trib­uted Al­ba­nia’s qual­i­fi­ca­tion to the ex­panded for­mat of the com­pe­ti­tion, the truth is that the team made it into the com­pe­ti­tion via a tough group. That group in­cluded Por­tu­gal, Den­mark and Ser­bia – all vet­er­ans of in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion, which boast stars who ply their trade at A-grade clubs.

The words ‘fairy tale’ in re­la­tion to the evo­lu­tion of Al­ba­nian foot­ball have been used nearly as of­ten as they were used in re­la­tion to Le­ices­ter’s rise to the top rungs of the English Premier League. A very apt com­par­i­son, as the Ital­ian-born na­tional coach, Gianni De Bi­asi, is a close friend of his coun­try­man Clau­dio Ranieri. That they both man­aged to en­gi­neer the im­pos­si­ble in the same sea­son is some­thing that can only be ex­plained by the soccer gods.

It took De Bi­asi just five years to en­gi­neer the mir­a­cle. Pro­fes­sional foot­ball in Al­ba­nia is still in a rick­ety state be­cause every as­pect of life in the coun­try had been largely in­su­lated from the out­side world dur­ing the nearly four decades of com­mu­nist rule. In an ef­fort to get quick re­sults and in­spire a foot­ball cul­ture, De Bi­asi scouted the globe, look­ing for foot­ballers of Al­ba­nian de­scent play­ing in big leagues but un­able to make the na­tional teams of their coun­tries.

Be­cause of its his­tory of wars and up­heavals through the cen­turies, Al­ba­nia has one of the largest di­as­po­ras in the world. Al­ba­ni­ans are to be found in vir­tu­ally every coun­try with a half-de­cent econ­omy, and es­ti­mates are that they out­num­ber the 3 mil­lion peo­ple in the home coun­try.

This multi­na­tional jig­saw puz­zle posed its own dif­fi­cul­ties. For in­stance, many of them only spoke the lan­guages of their coun­tries, mean­ing team com­mu­ni­ca­tion was a night­mare.

But De Bi­asi forged on and in­stilled a self-be­lief in the play­ers and – very im­por­tantly – in Al­ba­ni­ans liv­ing at home and in the di­as­pora.

Last night’s game against Ro­ma­nia was to de­cide whether they were to go home or if the dream could con­tinue. What­ever the case, they have made their mark, and the world has fallen in love with them.

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