War, Politics, and Football: Albania’s journey to Europe

“When I first started playing for Albania 12 years ago, I never thought this day would come but we always tried and have now managed to do it thanks to the willpower of this group, this fine generation of players…” – Albania captain Lorik Cana

“This qualification is historic. We did not deserve the defeats at home [to Portugal and Serbia]. We do not have a team of superstars, but they have heart and a collective spirit.” – Albanian FA president, Armando Duka.

Heart? Collective spirit? Seasoned viewers of the Albanian national team will know all too well how much heart any Albanian has when they put on that national shirt. As the words of the national anthem echo around the stadium every time:

“Prej lufte veç ai largohet                                             “From war abstains only he

Që është lindur tradhëtor                                             Who a traitor is born

Kush është burrë nuk frikësohet,                                He who is a true man is not frightened,
Po vdes, po vdes si një dëshmor!”                             But dies, a martyr to the cause!”

FB_IMG_1444775210264Those players dig deep – deeper than they would for any club side – and fight together for the cause, for the Albanian national team. Often there would be blood. Certainly a lot of sweat. But almost always, tears. Because you see, as an Albanian, I have a confession to make – we’re simply not that good. We didn’t expect to make the play-offs, let alone qualify for the Euros. We watched and supported our brave warriors every time, often winning a few battles along the way, and celebrating them as wildly as a World Cup win. But deep down inside, there was always a feeling that the war was going to be lost. A last-minute chance missed here, concede a last minute winner there. Various campaigns have usually started with a glimmer of hope but have always ended with Albania finishing last or second-last. At least in this sense we could claim some level of consistency.

This campaign, however, was a display of consistency of a different kind. Under the steely, yet unknown, Gianni de Biasi, Albania’s defensive record markedly improved; they conceded only 5 goals in 8 qualifying games. De Biasi imposed a typical Italian philosophy: in defence Albania were compact and resolute, and would rely on a mixture of counter-attacking play and perfectly executed set-pieces. This strategy played perfectly to Albania’s strengths – whilst they were severely lacking in technical midfielders and play-makers, they had a decent mixture of pace and strength in the squad, with plenty of desire to carry out his game plan.

In order to acquire the personnel required to carry out this plan, de Biasi set about recruiting outside official Albanian borders quickly. Outside the 3 million-strong Albanian nation, there could be an extra 6 to 10 million Albanians across the world. 1.6 million of those reside in Kosovo, an Albanian-majority nation/province (depending on your political view), and constitute an integral part of the Albanian national side. The captain, Lorik Cana, and the first-choice keeper, Etrit Berisha, amongst others are both from Kosovo and make up the spine of the defence. Recruitment doesn’t just stop at Kosovo either. Arbnor Fejzullahu comes from the Albanian-majority town of Preshevë/Preševo in Serbia, Naser Aliji from another Albanian-majority town in Macedonia called Kumanovë/Kumanovo, and Ergys Kaçe, although originally born in Korçë, Albania, has lived in Greece since the age of three. The national team, more than ever, is truly a pan-Albanian one.2143251_w21

The final pieces of the puzzle were to be provided by the nations of Germany and Switzerland. These nations are not known for their Albanian talent, except ironically by Albanians. Shkodran Mustafi, who now plays for Valencia, played his part in the excellent World Cup-winning Germany side in 2014 (becoming the first ever Albanian to lift the trophy), whereas the Swiss national squad contains no fewer than six Albanian players, including the maverick Valon Behrami and the mercurial Xherdan Shaqiri. Fans of the Albanian national team often display feelings of both love and hatred towards these players. Albanians will often support a team with an Albanian in it but at the same time lament their lack of patriotism at the fact that they did not select the Albanian national team. Nevertheless, de Biasi managed to get stars such as Mërgim Mavraj and Taulant Xhaka (Granit Xhaka’s brother) to join the Eagles, despite being involved in the German and Swiss junior teams respectively.

Much of the blame for the lack of diaspora players is also attributed to the Albanian FA and specifically Armando Duka. Rumours surfaced that stars of the Swiss national team like Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka expressed their desire to play for the Albanian national team, but were supposedly made to pay upwards of €100,000 to join. Regardless of their veracity, the Albanian FA has constantly been accused of corruption (Albanian fans often joke that the Albanian FA is the only institution more corrupt than the Albanian government), so much so that the official supporters’ club of Albania, Tifozat Kuq e Zi, has repeatedly asked for Duka’s resignation for his alleged role in the internal corruption of the Albanian FA. Disputes between Albania’s Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports and the Albanian FA have previously led to sanctions from both FIFA and UEFA. Politics is never far away from Balkan football.

So no wonder then, that Balkan jaws collectively dropped in both fear and excitement when Albania and Serbia were placed in the same qualifying group for Euro 2016. It probably did not dawn to naïve UEFA officials at the time, but the grouping of these two countries was a political statement in itself. The implications of the Kosovo War are still fresh in the memory for both nations, and the fact that a large section of the Albanian team is comprised of Kosovar Albanians clearly added fuel to the fire. In order to try to limit the clear chance of violence erupting between the two sets of fans, UEFA ordered the two nations to ban their away fans from attending that corresponding away fixture. It had (to a large extent) worked during the FIFA 2014 World Cup qualification matches between Croatia and Serbia. But as observers of the Balkans know, Albania vs Serbia is – no pun intended – a different ball game entirely. What happened in the first game in Belgrade was indeed predicted by a fair few Albanians and Serbians, but certainly nobody could have predicted how it happened.
1413355874454_Image_galleryImage_A_flag_depicting_so_calleIn a red-hot atmosphere, Serbia and Albania played out an enthralling game, even if devoid of chances. The Serbs had played the better football up until then, but the Albanians arguably missed the best chance of the game – a free header from Lorik Cana from an Albanian corner. Then, around the 40th minute, the infamous drone descended from the sky – Ethnic Albania’s very own eagle. What the flag had on it could hardly have been more inflammatory if it was doused in petrol. In the middle, the borders of ‘Ethnic Albania’ – within it containing all of the majority-Albanian regions in the Balkans, never mind the serious encroachments of Serbia and its allies, Macedonia and Greece. The two figures on the flag are Ismail Qemali, the signatory of Albania’s declaration of independence in 1912 and Isa Boletini, the infamous Albanian guerrilla fighter around the same period. To top it off, the word autochthonous sprawled across the map (meaning indigenous rather than descended from migrants or colonists) – a thinly-veiled insult at Serbs who are believed to have settled in the Balkans in the 6th and 7th century, as opposed to Albanians, there since antiquity.

At first there was confusion. (Was it a bird? Was it a plane?) Then there was anger. Cries of ubi, ubi, šiptara (Kill, kill Albanians) that had echoed across the ground were more vocal now. Stefan Mitrović had grabbed the flag and a small scuffle ensued between the players before Bekim Balaj ran with it towards the edge of the pitch before he got there. But before he got there, a Serbian ultra had smashed a plastic chair onto his back. Lorik Cana flung him to the floor and punched him in the face. Ivan Bogdanovic, the Serbian ultra king-pin arrested in 2012 for violence in Italy, was amongst those lurking in the background. For neutrals looking on, it was shocking, disgusting and outrageous. Lifelong bans for both nations were called for and sprawled across Facebook walls. But for those in the Balkans, it was hilarious, a little bit embarrassing and certainly not a surprise. The more something happens, the less shocking you think it is. What wasn’t so hilarious was the sanctions placed on both teams. In order to seem impartial, Serbia were given three points because Albania had abandoned the game (one wonders why they did so (!)) and then taken them away for crowd trouble. UEFA incompetence would have to be settled by the Court of Arbitration of Sport at a later date.2014-10-14T220341Z_1633245193_LR1EAAE1P9UOR_RTRMADP_3_SOCCER-EURO-SERBIA-BRAWL

The respective European campaigns of these two sides went two completely separate ways after the game. Serbia were also forced to play their next few games behind closed doors. Having already drawn disappointingly to Armenia, Serbia suffered three crucial losses in qualifying, losing twice to Denmark and also to Portugal, leaving qualification hanging by a thread. Albania on the other hand went from strength to strength, spurred by a feeling of injustice at being punished for something that they felt was not their fault. They had already started their campaign impressively, beating a Ronaldo-less Portugal 1-0 in Lisbon and drawing to Denmark 1-1 at home when they arguably should have won. A friendly win against France and an unlikely comeback to beat Armenia 2-1, amongst other results, left Albania with their best chance to qualify for an international tournament for the first time. The nail in the coffin for Serbia and one final boost for Albania was confirmed by the CAS decision on the 10th July 2015, when Albania were awarded a 3-0 win, and Serbia were deducted three points.

And so it was written that the second time these two teams met in Albania would be the day where Albania could secure their place with the sweetest of victories over Serbia. The pressure felt by everyone involved was as intense as the August sun on a Balkan field. The Albanian FA wrote a letter to all Albanian fans pleading with them to not cause trouble during the game, in order to avoid a similar punishment given to Serbia, and also to save political face. In the days leading up to the game and on game day itself, the authorities were closely resembling the communist sigurimi in the days of Enver Hoxha and arresting anyone who even looked like causing trouble. Symptomatic of modern-day Albanian politics, it seemed the higher powers were more concerned with saving face than winning. The game itself was static for the first 45 minutes – both sides seemingly crippled with pressure. The Serbs also had a lot riding on the game. Although they could not qualify, another loss against Albania would probably mean the end of most of their international careers. At the start of the game, both sides would have probably taken a draw. A draw symbolising their political relationship – where no-one wins.

FB_IMG_1444643855190In the second half, the Albanians smelt blood and went on the offensive. Sokol Cikalleshi came the closest with a stinging shot saved by Vladimir Stojković. It looked like both sides were going to settle for a draw, until a defensive mistake allowed a Serbian counter-attack to be finished off by Aleksandar Kolarov. Heartbreak for the Albanians was compounded by another late Serbian goal conceded whilst trying to chase the equaliser. The Serbs celebrated wildly on the touchline, a mixture of ecstasy and relief palpable. Perhaps, for them, it was a small slice of rough justice. They had lost the war pretty spectacularly, but the major battle they had won. They could go back to Belgrade having claimed one small victory. For the Albanians, it was the end of the world, at least for a day. Losing to Serbia in such a painful manner would have been unforgivable for the majority of Albanians were it not for the fact they had one more chance against Armenia in Yerevan. The battle was lost, but the war was still there to be won.

Albania started much more brightly, a complete contrast to their two last-minute defeats against Portugal and Serbia. They dominated the game and fully deserved their 2-0 lead at half-time. Another goal by Armando Sadiku left the Albanians going crazy at full-time. They had finally achieved what no-one had even dreamed they would do. They won the war. De Biasi told reporters after the game that he was “laughed at” when suggesting that Albania could qualify for a major tournament. Now it seems the Albanians are laughing at their detractors. “Despite beating us, they will now watch us in France while drinking beer in front of the TV!” said a tearful yet tongue-in-cheek Cana. And where will the Albanians be watching? Either in France, enjoying their pain au chocolats. Or at home, with family and friends, cheering on their warriors. They could be in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia or Switzerland, Germany, Britain. They could be Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox. A nation that often feigns unity whilst being so diverse and so fractured can this summer finally become one, at least for a couple of weeks. Supporting the nation. Victorious, united.

Associated videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7w_Zeggmz2g – Celebrationsin Prishtina

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3GwiVE3N4M – Celebrations: traditional dance

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XguAh2dgfE8  – This video shows a young Serbian fan who was part of a small group who went to watch the Albania – Serbia game. Propaganda? Maybe, but unlikely. What we can only hope is that this is a glimpse of the future for both these nations.