NEXT YEAR’S European Championship is going to be a strange affair – Wales, Northern Ireland, Iceland and now Albania have all qualified, bringing a whole new perspective on the tournament. The sceptics will suggest that UEFA’s accountants must now be wondering who will turn up to watch some of the “dead-rubber” group games that will undoubtedly characterise a bloated Euro 2016, but if they were aiming for a more democratic competition, Michel Platini and co. have achieved just that.
But why have Albania, for so long one of Europe’s also-rans, suddenly become a credible force in European football? Is there a “golden generation” for a country that hasn’t even come close to qualifying before?
Something has certainly been stirring, for Albania is benefitting from a plethora of players who are ethnically Albanian although not necessarily born in the country. Many, like current captain, Lorik Cana, were born in Kosovo.
Cana was named among the best players to miss out on the last World Cup. He’s something of a hero in Albania, not just for his performances on the pitch, but also for his role in wrestling a Serbian fan to the ground in the controversial “Drone-gate” match between the two countries in Belgrade a year ago.
Prior to World Cup 2014, Albanians had been called-up by six other national teams: Kosovo, Switzerland, Macedonia, Finland, Germany and Montenegro. If these players had elected to play for Albania instead of an adopted country, Albania may well have appeared in Brazil. One such player is Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri, born in Serbia to Kosovar Albanian parents and lining-up for Switzerland. Another is Adnan Januzaj, Manchester United’s Belgian international who is currently on loan at Borussia Dortmund. In September 2014, it was calculated that there were more than 80 Albanians playing with foreign senior and youth national teams, of which 46 are in Switzerland. Albanians are scattered right across Europe, with around 300,000 in both Germany and Switzerland and half a million in Italy. There’s even 200,000 in the United States.
Albania have been creeping up the FIFA rankings for a while now. They’re currently ranked 32nd, but they climbed as high as 22 earlier in 2015. They’ve pulled off some impressive results over the past year or so – beating Portugal 1-0 in Lisbon and beating France at home and drawing away.
What’s more, the European Championship campaign was remarkable in that Albania did not lose an away game. Leaving aside the 3-0 “award” that Albania received after the Belgrade fiasco, the group was not one of the easiest to get out of – Portugal, Denmark and Serbia aswell as Armenia. Albania beat Portugal away and also Armenia (3-0) and also gained a 0-0 draw in Denmark. Their only two defeats were at home to Portugal (0-1) and Serbia (0-2).
Last six qualifying tournaments – Albania
While Tirana welcomed their heroes home from Armenia, where they won 3-0 to clinch qualification to Euro 2016 finals, Albania may be facing another challenge in the near future. Kosovo is set to be given UEFA membership next year and they could be included in the next World Cup qualifiers. This may mean that there will be a battle for talent that previously may have elected to play for Albania. If that happens, then the progress made by “the red and blacks” may only be very fleeting. Meanwhile, they have France 2016 to enjoy. And judging by the celebrations in the capital city these past few days, the Albanians will do just that.