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Little is expected of Albania, drawn to face Italy, Spain, and Croatia in what appears the toughest group of Euro 2024, although their rise from footballing obscurity over the last decade deserves respect and commands attention.

Firstly, they have a striking new South American influence led by familiar faces from the Premier League. Sylvinho, the former Arsenal, Barcelona and Brazil left back has taken Albanian citizenship such is his commitment to the role of head coach and his assistants are Pablo Zabaleta, stalwart of Manchester City and Argentina, and Doriva, a Brazilian from the samba years at Middlesbrough.

More significant though and no less intriguing has been the diaspora of young Albanians drawn back to reconnect with their ancestry through the national team. Players such as Slough-born Armando Broja of Chelsea rejected overtures from illustrious footballing nations in what has been one of the key shifts in eight years since their major tournament debut at Euro 2016.

In France, eight years ago, they faced a Switzerland team featuring several players of Albanian heritage who had been eligible for either side, including Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri.

Perhaps that campaign was the glimpse of progress required to tip the balance. Qualification then as runners-up ahead of Denmark was assisted by three points from an abandoned qualifier against Serbia when a drone carrying an Albania flag sparked a pitch invasion by home fans in Belgrade and attacks on the visiting team.

Albania are gearing up for their second major tournament in Germany after their 2016 debut

With Arsenal legend Sylvinho at the helm, the side are hoping to sneak through their 'group of death' - Group B

With Arsenal legend Sylvinho at the helm, the side are hoping to sneak through their ‘group of death’ – Group B 

This time, players such as Broja and Jasir Asani, a winger born in North Macedonia and playing for Gwangju in South Korea, combined under Sylvinho to clinch a place in these finals as winners of a qualifying group also featuring the Czech Republic and Poland.

They lost only once in eight qualifiers, fuelling hope in a country with a long-standing passion for football but held back for generations, isolated from the world by the policies of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime.

‘Football was, and still is, the national obsession,’ says Phil Harrison, who has explored Albania’s relationship with the people’s game through difficult times in his book, ‘Inside the Hermit Kingdom’.

‘It provided amnesty from the boredom of regime-subscribed life in the bleakest of years but, between 1967 and 1991, became much more than an obsession. With religion banned, football became the new religion. It is impossible to overstate its importance to the average Albanian.’

Harrison regales with extraordinary tales, reviving distant legends such as Selman Stermasi and Loro Borici and picking over the sinister influence of the state, which stretched well beyond clubs such as Partizani and Dinamo, formed to represent the army and the secret police.

Qualifying for their last Euros appearance was marred by the controversial landing of a drone

Qualifying for their last Euros appearance was marred by the controversial landing of a drone

A number of supporters invaded the pitch as players scrapped with one another over the drone's flag

A number of supporters invaded the pitch as players scrapped with one another over the drone’s flag

Most notoriously, the campaign of 1966-67 saw the people’s club KF Tirana ordered to forfeit their final three games as part of a spurious punishment for a post-match scuffle. The title was effectively handed to Dinamo.

Players who refused to play for them would be punished with hard labour. Skender Halili was banned for rejecting Dinamo and later, when back at KF Tirana, was arrested on the eve of a flight to Oslo for a European Cup tie against Valerenga. He was imprisoned and sent to work in remote chrome mines, accused of selling two wristwatches on the black market. Halili would never play competitive football again and was dead at 42.

His team were not allowed to travel to Norway and were banned by UEFA for the no-show. Exposure to western consumerism and with it the temptation to defect were key factors behind Albania’s fitful participation in international competitions.

They opted out of various World Cups and European Championships and were a long way behind by the time the fall of communism descended into the Balkan Wars. Slow and steady progress has been made until a 1-0 victory in Portugal in the Euro 2016 qualifiers signified a new stature.

Until then, their finest result had been a 0-0 draw against West Germany, in 1967. Not only did that result cost the Germans a place in the final four of the European Championships but also hatched a minor scandal involving Gerd Muller, who was mysteriously dropped amid rumours he had fallen in love with a woman called Hojna, a worker at the team hotel in Tirana.

In 1970 Ajax faced off with Menduri Tirana in the European Cup, cutting a dash versus their Albanian counterparts

In 1970 Ajax faced off with Menduri Tirana in the European Cup, cutting a dash versus their Albanian counterparts

Muller seemed to spend years pining for a return because in 1985 HJK Helsinki received a letter from him after they were drawn against Flamurtari of Albania in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. He was by then retired and almost 40 but the story goes that he proposed signing for the Finnish team on a ‘one-game contract’ enabling him to travel to Tirana and ‘see my girlfriend’.

Other odd collisions between the Hoxhaists and western decadence through the medium of football included a visit from Ajax in 1970, when the Dutch champions were warned players would not be allowed in unless hair was shorter than 3cm.

They did have haircuts, but the Ajax players satisfied their nonconformist nature by swaggering into the Albanian capital with their wives and girlfriends in tow, all sporting bright fashions. ‘A caravan of western pomp and excess – the natives aghast,’ as Harrison wrote.

Danny McGrain’s beard was shaved by his wife at Glasgow Airport the amusement of his teammates and the assembled press corps before Celtic travelled to face Partizani in 1979.

Things have changed and yet Saturday’s opener against Italy in Dortmund is loaded with historical significance such are the links between two countries just 45 miles apart across the Adriatic Sea at the nearest point.

Albania was occupied and ruled by Italy before the second world war, enabling Italian clubs to spirit away the best players. ‘They were considered as Italian footballers,’ says Harrison.

This season, Inter Milan midfielder Kristjan Asllani, whose family moved to Italy when he was a child, has become the first Albanian to win Italy’s Serie A since Naim Kryeziu, a flying winger integral to the first Roma team to win the title, in 1942.

A number of displaced players such as Granit Xhaka (pictured making the Albania double-headed eagle sign in 2018) now feature for countries such as Switzerland

A number of displaced players such as Granit Xhaka (pictured making the Albania double-headed eagle sign in 2018) now feature for countries such as Switzerland

But rising starlets such as Inter Milan's Kristjan Asllani have stayed loyal to their homeland

But rising starlets such as Inter Milan’s Kristjan Asllani have stayed loyal to their homeland

In the same season, Riza Lushta, another Albanian star, was firing Juventus to the Coppa Italia with a hat-trick in a 4-2 win against AC Milan the final. Both stayed in Italy after the war. Kryeziu went on to coach and scout for Roma, discovering a young Giuseppe Giannini.

Albanian club football in the 21st Century is not free from all problems. Attendances are well below the 20,000-plus regularly packed in during Stalinist isolation and some clubs have fallen into the grip of criminal gangs and match-fixing scandals. Skenderbeu were banned for 10 years by UEFA in 2018 for fixing games.

The landscape is shifting. Manchester City’s City Football Group are moving into the second city of Durres, transferring Dinamo from Tirana, renaming them Dinamo City and building a modern training complex sure to be the envy of all rivals. Some people fear Dinamo, once run by the secret police, are about to enjoy another unfair advantage.

Under Sylvinho, however, the national team is in a good place, harnessing the diaspora to emerge as a Balkan force as they head into Euro 2024’s Group of Death.

 

‘Inside The Hermit Kingdom: Football Stories from Stalinist Albania’ by Phil Harrison is published by Pitch.

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