Underdogs Albania eyeing Euro impact after impressive qualification achievement
Holly Thackeray | April 14, 2016
While most of the headlines building up to Euro 2016 have focused on the Home Nations’ often heroic Euro qualification campaigns and warm-ups, with surprise packages the Czech Republic and Iceland also receiving due plaudits, outsiders Albania’s achievements have somewhat escaped unnoticed. Though, they are arguably more astonishing.
The Eagles are 6/4 with Coral to qualify from Group A in France, and though their chances of claiming the continental crown (200/1) are improbable, Albania have already etched their names into their multi-cultural country’s sporting history.
France next summer will be a superb stage for the Albanians on which to make their first ever European Championship outing and, in fact, their maiden voyage in a major tournament.
“We do not have a team of superstars”
“We do not have a team of superstars, but they have heart and a collective spirit,” president of Albania’s FA Armando Duka told press, following jubilant celebrations across the Balkan country.
So, who are the Adriatic Sea outfit’s main protagonists? And how did they come so far so quickly in football?
“When I first started playing for Albania 12 years ago, I never thought this day would come but we always tried and now have managed to do it thanks to the willpower of this group, this fine generation of players,” captain Lorik Cana, a key player in this campaign, stated.
Skipper Cana, now 32, will be most familiar to fans having spent just one season in the Premier League with Sunderland, before jumping ship to Galatasaray. Now with Nantes, the 90-capped Albania international has shifted from midfield to centre back, where his tactical nous helped the Eagles concede just five in qualifying, the same number as fancied big-guns Portugal and Denmark.
Though, it has to be noted that the net-shy Danes and Portuguese did not perform to expectations, with the Scandinavian nation in particular enduring a dry spell in front of goal, a failure which saw them toil in the play-offs.
To give Albania their due, however, they managed to defeat and end evenly with France in two friendlies, similarly denying the Danes with draws in both their duels to pip the under-achievers to automatic qualification. An opening win against Portugal also saw Italian tactician Gianni De Biasi’s boys have an inadvertent hand in the sacking of Paulo Bento.
Of course, being awarded three points after a game against rivals Serbia was called-off due to a pitch invasion did help their eventual tally, though Albania are deserving, with their David versus Goliath performances outshining dismal Denmark.
Since then, however, dead rubber warm-ups for the France finals have been, for the first time in this tale, underwhelming with a draw against Georgia followed by defeat to Austria before the Albanians bounced back win a win against minnows Luxembourg. It’s tough to take too much, either for or against, from those meaningless and experimental exhibitions, however.
Going back to Cana, the captain is quite unique, having opted to play for his nation of birth despite coming through the ranks at PSG. The Eagles have often struggled to cling on to top talents, with many of Albanian descent having claim to more prominent sporting nationalities due to decades of turbulent politics.
A promising future ahead for Albania
Though this is beginning to change, with adaptable Basel-born star Taulant Xhaka turning out for the Albanians while his high-profile brother Granit, of Borussia Monchengladbach, represents more glamorous Switzerland.
Albania will face the Swiss, and a fair few stars other than Xhaka and Stoke City star Xherdan Shaqiri with Albanian roots, in their assault on the Euro 2016 group stages, in a tough Pool A alongside hosts France and a defensively well-tuned Romania team.
Every underdog team requires a mercurial manager and former Udinese coach De Biasi is just that. Having failed to set Serie A alight, the former midfielder took charge of the Eagles in 2011, eventually obtaining dual citizenship, which is a measure of how much the man has put into his role.
“Those who laughed back then are celebrating with us today”
“I told them that if we believed in ourselves, we could do it,” he said. “Some might’ve laughed at me, but those who laughed back then are celebrating with us today. We had a whole population behind us. This is the most satisfying moment of my life,” said De Biasi, though his biggest challenge is still ahead, with Qatar and Ukraine friendly clashes before the first outing in France against Switzerland.
Albania may lack star quality but, as boss De Biasi believes the team is better than the sum of their parts, with the scoring in qualifying Pool I split between six players, each taking their chance to be game-changers with one apiece.
Though, if there is a particular talent to watch out for in France, Basel wing wizard Shkelzen Gashi is a top scorer for the Swiss Super League champions, having struck 27 in the past two terms, and could just surprise next summer. Watch this space for Albania’s Euro arrival.