How Albania won a million hearts
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.