Cinderella Goes to the Ball: Albania and its national football team

When Polish referee Szymon Marciniak blew the final whistle in the Republican Stadium in Yerevan on Sunday the 11th of October 2015, the fireworks pointed towards the skies over 6000 km away could finally be lit. A 3-0 win over Armenia ensured that the Kuq e Zintje – the Albanian national team – had qualified for Euro 2016 in France; their first ever international football tournament. Europe’s Cinderella – the pretty girl in rags – would finally be going to the ball.

For a people accustomed to decades of poverty, a hermetic communist regime for most of the 20th century, along with the civil strife and political unrest that followed, the mass outpouring of joy on the streets of the capital Tirana and throughout the nation of 3 million was completely understandable and justified.

Thanks to 40 years of life under Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, lasting from 1945 to 1985, Albania was long considered the poorest, most isolated and backward country in Europe and its national football team, although one of the founding members of Uefa, reflected its lowly international stature. The team dropped as low as 127th in the FIFA world rankings back in 1994 and was forced to play their home games in Switzerland in 1997 when the pyramid schemes in Albania collapsed, leading to social chaos on the streets and over 2,000 deaths.

Although a few victories were garnered down through the years on the bumpy pitch of the Qemal Stafa Stadium in Tirana, Albania would regularly be on the end of some hidings and rarely threatened to qualify. Indeed, by the time qualification for the 2014 World Cup had come to a conclusion, Albania sat in fifth place in a six team group.

Hired in 2011 to change the team’s fortunes, Italian coach Gianni De Biasi had been put in charge of the Albanian team for that 2014 qualification campaign. In spite of their expected lowly finish, signs of improvement had been hinted at, with impressive victories recorded over Norway, Slovenia and Cyprus. With a limited player base, De Biasi sought to pool together the talents of players from the million-strong Albanian diaspora that were spread throughout Europe. Migjen Basha was persuaded away from Switzerland and promising players such as Mergim Mavraj and Edgar Ceni, who had grown disillusioned with the Albanian Football Association, were brought back into the fold. With a strong team spirit, mixed with young talent and experienced pros who were playing with clubs around Europe, things were looking up for the side by the time the draw for Euro 2016 qualifying was made.

The 2016 campaign, containing Portugal, Denmark, Armenia and arch rivals Serbia, started with an incredible 1-0 win in Lisbon, followed by a hard-fought draw at home to a strong Danish side. Albania’s next game, against Serbia in Belgrade, drew international attention however, when the match was abandoned after violence erupted on the pitch and in the stands when a drone bearing a pro-Albanian political flag was flown into the stadium. Ruling that the violent reaction from the Serbs was the reason for the abandonment, the Court of Arbitration for Sport awarded a 3-0 victory to Albania. That ruling would prove decisive as Albania would lose the corresponding fixture at home to Serbia 2-0 and despite only winning one of their remaining four games in the group, sheer determination and teamwork pushed them over the line.

Of course, the Albanians will care not a bit about how they reached Euro 2016. Hundreds of fans welcomed the team home from Yerevan at Tirana’s Mother Teresa Airport and thousands more lined the streets of the capital, singing and dancing. Prime Minister Edi Rama gave the players a red carpet reception, promising to push ahead with construction of a new national stadium (Albania’s traditional home stadium in Tirana isn’t up to Uefa safety standards), which would have a golden plaque engraved with the names of the squad. Addressing the squad, Rama said “Like never before, you made Albania and Albanians everywhere feel the dream of going to the finals of a European Championship.”

Now that the elation of qualification has died down somewhat, Albania can spend the next 8 months looking forward to their summer in France. The social and economic significance of qualifying for a major football tournament can not be understated either. As the most popular sport on the planet, football is powerful enough to affect social change.

When the Irish team qualified for the 1990 World Cup and went on to reach the last eight, the feelgood factor and self-confidence garnered from that success helped to kick start an economic boom in the country. The great impression that the team and its fans made in front of the world’s cameras that summer encouraged both foreign investment and tourism in the country, as well as a sense among the population that they were, essentially, good enough.

It is easy to draw similarities between Ireland pre-1990 and Albania today: a small nation of 3 million or so, a troubled past, economic hardship and mass emigration that has lead to a considerable worldwide diaspora. With a stunningly beautiful landscape, remarkable levels of hospitality, and the fact that nearby tourist hot-spots like Crete and Dubrovnik growing ever more expensive, it seems a matter of time until Albania eventually encounters a tourism boom akin to Ireland’s in the late 80’s. For the few who have been fortunate enough to have visited Albania this would not come as a surprise.

The unity exemplified by the Albanian football team mirrors that of the society it represents: as the only predominantly Muslim country in Europe, Albania is unique. It is also unique in that it destroys the negative stereotype of an intolerant Islamic society: in Tirana you will rarely see a headscarf let alone a burqa. Regularly, you will see local men quickly leave the mosque on Friday and head down to a restaurant for baked lamb and some raki. A Muslim city in purely numerical terms, it is a hard-line Muslim’s nightmare in most other senses. Women wear what they want and go and do as they please. This isn’t a place where organized religion sets the tone for the population and that is evident in Albanians’ non-judgmental and laid-back nature.

Speaking to diplomats at the Vatican in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris earlier this year, Pope Francis heaped praise on the country he had visited a few months previous, where he encountered Catholic and Orthodox Christian minority communities, plus a tiny congregation of Jews, co-existing peacefully within a largely Muslim society. Life in Albania, the Pontiff observed, was “marked by the peaceful coexistence and collaboration that exists among the followers of different religions in an atmosphere of respect and mutual trust”. I recently had the experience of stepping into a hostel in Tirana to see the owner reading a copy of the Qur’an, despite having a crucifix around his neck. Intrigued, I asked him whether he was Muslim, to which he replied, “No, I’m Orthodox but my wife is, so I best read a little about it!”. Brilliant.

The only thing matching the mystery of this country is its amazing warmth, beauty, and charm.

With such a wonderful view on life, I sincerely hope that Albania’s success and international exposure on the pitch will lead to similar economic and political strides for its people, particularly if EU membership can be realised in the near future. The only thing matching the mystery of this country to most Europeans is its amazing warmth, beauty, and charm.

With the eyes of the world watching them in June, the Albanian people, scattered throughout the world, can now rightfully stand with pride and confidence among the elite of Europe and as their national anthem rings out in France, their pride for the Black Eagles will soar and soar.