From Aveiro to Lyon

Bekim Balaj celebrates after scoring the sole goal of the game v Portugal on 7 September 2014.

We begin our long journey in Europe with Albania. What is Albania known for? Not for its football, that is for sure, although football is Albania’s most beloved sport. It was very hard to find an obscure story about Albanian football; so, I went with Albania’s journey to Euro 2016 in France – from the first match of Group I in the qualifiers to the last match in Group A in the 2016 European Championship.

It all started on 7 September 2014 at Estadio Municipal in Aveiro when ‘Kuq e Zintjë (The Red and Blacks)’ shocked everybody in Europe with a 1-0 victory over Cristiano Ronaldo and his friends, thanks to Bekim Balaj’s goal in the 52nd minute of the match. So disastrous was the defeat for Portugal that the Portuguese FA decided to relieve Paulo Bento of his duties. ‘People rejoiced Balaj’s goal not only because it was against Portugal and for the win, but also for the fact that it was a wonderful first intention strike,’ says Ermal Kuka, an Albanian football writer. ‘But it was not Balaj, the whole team was praised as they had to grit through to get that victory.’ The Eagles’ next match was against Denmark on 11 October at the newly-renovated Elbasan Stadium in Elbasan. The match ended with one goal for each side, with Ermir Lenjani of Albania and Lasse Vibe of Denmark scoring their countries’ respective goals. Then came the match on 14 October that is still fondly remembered by the Albanians to this day. This highly eventful match featured lots of action not advised for the children under the age of 12, whether those moments be a hideous chant by the Serbs that can be roughly translated to as ‘Kill the Albanians!’ or a drone with a banner of ‘Greater Albania’, a banner that visually united Albania and Kosovo. The game came to the boiling point when Bekim Balaj took that banner from the Serbian centre-back, Stefan Mitrović. It was at that very moment that the Serbian fans flooded onto the pitch and attacked some of the opposition players, or in this case, people who know Kosovo is an independent country – a fact that infuriates every Serbian person. ‘They assaulted their own police before they attacked our players,’ recalls Kuka. According to Mr Kuka, the stewards who practically did nothing to intervene the Serbian fans even joined the assailants. On 24 October, UEFA awarded Serbia a default 3-0 win while also stating that the Albanian players ‘refused to resume the match’. Yet, despite that walkover victory, UEFA also penalised Serbia by deducting Serbia’s three points and ordering the Serbs to play their next two competitive games behind closed doors. Furthermore, both Serbia and Albania were fined €100,000. Both of these countries then went on to object to that decision and these two football associations even filed further appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). On 10 July 2015, UEFA’s decision was reversed and the Albanians were awarded a walkover win, instead. Anyway, back to the subject.

Albania’s next competitive game was a 2-1 victory over Armenia on 29 March 2015 before 12,300 pairs of eyes in Elbasan. In the same match, the Albanian defender Mërgim Mavraj scored a goal for either side. Even though it was not a competitive game, it is worth mentioning that Albania defeated the hosts of Euro 2016, France, in a friendly with the aid of an Ergys Kaçe goal. ‘They (the French) cared more about their holidays than football,’ remembers Ermal Kuka. ‘I think we managed to win because we prepared for the match as if it meant three points, even though it was just a friendly.’ Albania’s qualification campaign seemed to be in jeopardy when they collected only one point out of a possible nine. Those matches saw the Red and Blacks manage to pull a draw against Denmark, getting avenged by the Portuguese and the Serbs – the latter two were on home soil. Albanians were unlucky, considering that they missed a chance to convert a counter-attack led by Roshi against the Danes. ‘Kuq e Zintjë’ conceded 3 goals in the matches against Portugal and Serbia, all of which came in the stoppage time: a 92nd-minute goal from Miguel Veloso of Portugal, a 91st-minute goal from Serbia’s Aleksandar Kolarov, and a 94th-minute goal from Kolarov’s compatriot, Adem Ljajić. Kuka notes that the players went all-out attack unexpectedly, caring about the fans’ instructions rather than their manager’s. Albania, nonetheless, could still qualify provided that they defeated Armenia in Yerevan. ‘It was clear for us before the trip to Yerevan that it was a win-or-bust match.’ tells Kuka. Guess what, the Boys in Red and Black did it! The Albanians easily overcame the feeble Armenians with an own goal from Kamo Hovhannisyan, as well as goals from Berat Djimsiti and Armando Sadiku. ‘Kuq e Zintjë’ finished Group I as runners-up, only behind of Portugal; and ahead of Denmark, Serbia, and Armenia. Albania collected 14 points, seven fewer than Portugal and two more than the Danes. The striking statistics in this group were: 1. The first 3 countries all conceded 5 goals apiece. 2. No Albanian player could score more than one goal. The goalscoring Albanians in Group I were: Bekim Balaj, Berat Djimsiti, Shkëlzen Gashi, Ermir Lenjani, Mërgim Mavraj, and Armando Sadiku.

On 12 December 2015, the Albanians were put in the same group with France, Switzerland and Romania into Group A. On 11 June 2016, the match everyone had been waiting for came to Lens, where Albania took on ‘Albania B’ – also known as Switzerland. An early goal was scored by a non-Albanian Swiss in the form of Fabian Schär. Then, two late goals from Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet brought the Albanians to their knees as the French prevailed. Albania won a major tournament match for the first time when they defeated Romania with the goal of Armando Sadiku. Even though Albania finished third in their group, along with Turkey – who finished Group D third-placed, they failed to go through to the next stage. At least the players, the staff and the fans all held their heads high, safe in the knowledge they have finally become superior to their arch-nemeses, the Serbs. ‘The fact that we celebrated the team even after arriving in Albania shows that people were happy with them although we were out in the first stage,’ says Ermal Kuka. ‘People were enjoying the tournament itself more than the results.’ After all, it was Albania’s first-ever major tournament appearance.

There is an Albanian proverb that goes like this: ‘Matë the herë, prit një herë (Measure thrice, cut once.)‘ This explains how the Black Eagles managed to qualify despite scoring only 10 goals – three of which came as a result of the walkover win mentioned earlier. Although they lacked creativity and strike force in terms of goals scored, the Albanians were very successful when it came to defending. Players such as Etrit Berisha, Lorik Cana and Elseid Hysaj all contributed greatly to Albania’s qualification to Euro 2016. Of course, the credit needs to be given where it is due. Gianni De Biasi, the man who had taken the reins in December 2011, turned the side into a clockwork-like team. He injected an Italian dose of defensive football into the squad and improved the rate of teamwork between the players.

The Italian influence has always been present in Albanian football, even more so in recent years. The last three managers of Albania national football team are all from Italy: the aforementioned Gianni De Biasi, ex-Milan, Inter, Roma, and Real Madrid defender Christian Panucci, and the Friulian, Edoardo Reja – Albania’s current manager.

Nowadays, the Albanians seem to be in a ‘déjà vu’ situation. Last year, they finished bottom in Group C1, the group that also contained Scotland and Israel, of UEFA Nations League. And, despite the 4-2 victory against Iceland back in this September, Albania could not qualify for Euro 2020 by finishing Group H in 4th place. They even got a 2-2 draw against Andorra this November! Would anyone believe that?

Nevertheless, the heroic performances against Portugal and Denmark, and the victory against Armenia that sealed the qualification to Euro 2016 are still in the minds of the people of Albania. Not to mention the match in Belgrade, lots of books can be -and probably are- written about that particular match! Things are certainly better now for ‘Kuq e Zintjë’ than it was 30 years ago.

I would like to give credit to Mr Ermal Kuka, a football writer from Albania, for sparing some of his time to contribute to this post. If you find any misinformation, grammatical or punctuation mistakes, please do warn me @jmanstories on Twitter and via eurcan352000@gmail.com on Gmail. All feedback are much appreciated. If you want to read more stories like this, you can either visit this website, or simply, subscribe by entering your e-mail. All the content is free, so you do not have to pay for anything as I do not release stories for money. Thanks for reading!

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