No prizes for naming the biggest shock of the week in the European Championship qualifiers – Albania’s 1-0 win in Lisbon against a Ronaldo-less Portugal. Bekim Balaj, a 23 year-old forward who plies his trade with Slavia Prague, scored the only goal of the game. Portugal’s footballing establishment was stunned.
It was Albania’s third win of 2014, the others being against Malta (2-0) and San Marino (3-0). This follows a World Cup qualifying campaign that saw the Albanians win three group games, against Norway, Cyprus and Slovenia, arguably their best ever World Cup performance.
Even if there is something of a renaissance going on in Albanian football, the sort of win they pulled off in Lisbon is a very rare thing indeed. It has been a long time coming, for you have to go back to December 1967 to find a more noteworthy result. It was in the 1968 European Championship qualifiers, Albania playing host to 1966 World Cup runners-up West Germany. The Germans fielded no less than five of the team that lost to England, including Wolfgang Overath, Siggy Held and Wolfgang Weber. Also in the German side was a young Gunter Netzer.
Albania, coached by Loro Borici, a Partizani Tirana striker from the 1940s and 50s. His side held the Germans 0-0 in Tirana. Panajot Pano, Albania’s greatest ever player, recalled the game and how the nation greeted the 0-0 draw: “It was such a big upset that we celebrated for a month, as though we had won the World Cup.” Albania’s Frederik Gjinali had a goal disallowed and to this day, people feel aggrieved that it was ruled out. “We won that game really, the papers said it was 0-0, but the Germans knew it, the referee knew it, we knew it.”.
Pano went on to earn national hero status. In 2009, a year before he died, he was awarded “The honour of the nation” by Bamir Topi, the then Albanian President. A few years earlier, he won the UEFA Jubilee Award as Albania’s most notable player. Born in Derres in March 1939 of ethnic Greek parents, Pano started his football career as a goalkeeper with SK Tirana, but after his national service, he moved to Partizani.
He was first capped by Albania in 1963 against Bulgaria, but shortly afterwards, he scored an excellent goal against Denmark to give his country a 1-0 European Championship qualifying win in Tirana.
Partizani were founded as the Army club in February 1946. They won the Albanian league title seven times between 1947 and 1959. Pano, who scored 136 goals in 210 games for the club, was instrumental in Partizani’s championship successes in 1961, 1963, 1964 and later in 1971.
Pano considered that he played in what was a golden age for Albanian football. He recalled: “The years 1970-75 were the best ever, the stadiums were sold out for every game played in Tirana, especially the big derbies between Partizani and Dinamo.”
Dinamo, Partizani’s fierce rivals, was not a popular club due to its close links with the Albanian secret police. As in many communist regimes, the name Dinamo had negative connotations, and in Albania it was no different. In 1967, for example, 17 Nentori (later to become K.F. Tirana), were disqualified from the Albanian league with three games to go. 17 Nentori were three points clear at the top, but their expulsion allowed Dinamo to leapfrog them and win the title. Partizani were also disqualified at the same time. A case of the state deciding who should win the league!
UEFA, understandably, refused to recognise Dinamo’s “triumph” and satisfyingly, 17 Nentori won the title in 1968, one point ahead of Pano’s Partizani. Despite rumours that Pano might take up one of the many offers he received from Germany, Holland, Switzerland or Turkey, he remained loyal to Partizani. He had no regrets, but did later admit: “I have always wondered what it would have been like to play in a foreign championship and how I would have fared.” He stayed with Partizani until 1975 when he was 36 years old.
Pano died in 2010 in Florida at the age of 70. “We have lost our greatest footballer of all time,” said Sali Berisha, Albanian Prime Minister. “All the country is mourning the loss of this great player who made us so proud.” He received state honours for his funeral and a day of mourning was declared.
“You Albania, give me honour, give me the name Albania.”
Bekim Balaj and his pals have a lot to live up to…..