Albania is not a country that has had many footballing heroes. In fact, it has largely been viewed as a backwater of the game. The recent success of the national team owes much to a good crop of players that ply their trade across Europe. There is a name missing from the current squad – that of Geri Shatku, who was tipped to become Albania’s goalkeeper. Geri’s time might just have been now – if he had lived beyond his 18th birthday.
Geri Shatku was born in Tirana on June 3, 1990. His family moved to Italy initially at the end of the 1990s and permanently in 2000. He was football mad from a very young age, explains his brother Sidi: “Geri was a big Juventus fan and his hero was Gigi Buffon. We never realised just how good he was as a kid until he won the player of the tournament award at a prestigious youth tournament.”
The Shatku family initially lived in Recanati, near Ancona, a town more associated with opera than football, although Lionel Messi’s ancestors apparently once lived there. In 2005, they moved to Turin and Geri began playing with Atletico Torino, a club formerly known as Beppe Viola San Giorgio.
From there, Geri joined A.S.D. Calcio Ivrea from Serie C, a club from the Piedmont area of Italy. Geri moved up the ranks and made his first team debut in the Coppa Italia. Bigger clubs started to take notice of the young goalkeeper – AC Milan, Inter, Parma, Atalanta and Torino all had a look at Geri.
AC Milan and Torino were especially interested, with Geri winning praise from none other than Torino Chairman Urbano Cairo. His mentor, however, was Ugo Notario at Atletico Torino, who took Geri under his wing and acted as a quasi agent for the youngster. It was Notario who introduced him to a FIFA agent, Tommaso Guelpa, such was the expectation that Geri could go on to greater things. “Milan and Torino both liked what they saw in Geri,” recalls Sidi. “And the Albanian national team were also looking at him.”
But then disaster struck. Geri, a very modest young man who rarely spoke of his own achievements, called Sidi after a trip with his agent to watch AC Milan. “He said to me, ‘Sidi, I have a good feeling about this, I think Torino will offer me a deal’, which was out of character, but he was clearly excited,” recalls Sidi.
A few days after his trip to Milan, he felt unwell and could not finish his training session with Ivrea. He had a high temperature and his head hurt. His mother gave him some medication and the same night, as he got worse, he was admitted to hospital with the tell-tale signs of meningitis – a body rash, raging temperature and thirst and a severe headache. Within 24 hours, Geri was dead, struck down by an aggressive strain of the disease.
Naturally, Geri’s family were heartbroken, but Italian football also showed its human side in the reaction to his death. Most of the national papers covered the story, football folk in Turin and Ivrea were also devastated and the clubs that might have given him the launchpad to an outstanding career also expressed their deep regret.
Football didn’t allow Geri’s passing to go unnoticed. His friends produced t-shirts with the words: “Per Sempre il Numero 1” – always number one. Notario also presented the family with Buffon’s shirt with the message: “One day he would have worn Gigi’s shirt.” A youth tournament is still being held in his name with a trophy for fair play and renowned Albanian sports journalist, Defrim Methasani, made a film about Geri which is screened annually on Albanian TV channel TVSH. “The reaction was very moving and many people travelled from Recanati to Turin to pay tribute to Geri. He had many friends who absolutely loved him. Although Italian football lost a potentially bright young star and Albania was deprived of the chance to cultivate a new sporting hero, we can take comfort in knowing that the heavens welcomed an angel with the most beautiful smile.”