INTO THE UNKNOWN – Albanian football dares to dream
After years of mediocrity which saw them firmly establish themselves as one of the whipping boys of European football, Albania are mounting a remarkable challenge for qualification to the 2014 Fifa World Cup.
Drawn in a fairly modest group containing Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Slovenia and Cyprus, the Albanians are, nonetheless, surpassing all expectations by currently occupying second place behind the Swiss. While many will point to the low calibre of the group they have drawn into as the main reason why Albania still find themselves in contention with four games to play, others will quite rightly also highlight the influence asserted on the team by their Italian coach, Gianni De Biasi.
The 54-year-old has had a chequered career in management, coaching no less than 10 teams since hanging his boots up as a player in 1990. It is a career that has also been fairly low key, with moderate success being tempered by a handful of relegations. De Biasi enjoyed his best period while at the helm of Modena who he guided back into the Italian top flight after a 38 year absence, following two consecutive promotions.
One of De Biasi’s first tasks after being named Albania coach in December 2011, was to scour the leagues of Europe to find suitable players that may otherwise have slipped through the net. Ethnic Albanians are spread across the continent, but often chose to play for their adopted homelands rather than the countries of the forefathers and sometimes, birth. One only has to look at the likes of Bayern Munich and Switzerland midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri for proof of this.
In fact, it is Switzerland where many of those ethnic Albanians relocate, having fled the Balkans during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It is estimated that 3.5% of the total Swiss population are of Albanian descent, with the vast majority of them arriving from Kosovo during the war that engulfed the country at the end of the century.
One case in point is that of Migjen Basha who represented Switzerland at every level up to under-21. The midfielder had carved out a career for himself in Italy, where he played for De Biasi’s former team Torino, and was convinced to switch international allegiances when the Albanian coach approached contacts he still had in Turin.
Despite opposition from the Swiss Football Association, Basha was granted Albanian citizenship last summer and subsequently made his international debut in March when Albania won 1-0 in Norway. He then scored his first international goal in a friendly match against Lithuania four days later.
Then there is Pristina-born Etrit Berisha, a goalkeeper who moved from Kosovo to Sweden in 2008 to sign for Kalmar FF. De Biasi gave him his Albanian debut against Iran in May 2012, and the 24-year-old has gone on to share goalkeeping duties with former number one, Samir Ujkani.
As is probably expected from an Italian coach who has worked extensively in Italy, De Biasi’s side has, at its core, Italian-based players. Alongside Basha, the side also features Lorik Cana of Lazio, Chievo’s Samir Ujkani and strikers Edgar Cani who currently plies his trade for Catania and Siena veteran, Erjon Bogdani.
De Biasi has also recently called up Ledian Memushaj and Elseid Hysaj, who play for Lecce and Empoli respectively. It is a formula that is currently paying dividends for De Biasi and Albania. Long gone are the days when heavy defeats made them one of European football’s poor relations. In 10 previous World Cup Qualifying campaigns, Albania have only avoided finishing in the bottom two of the group just once – finishing at the very foot of their group on six occasions.
Yet here they now sit, second in their qualifying group, with a real chance of securing an unlikely berth at next year’s World Cup. Albania’s fate is, in all likelihood, is set to be determined in September when they face crunch matches in Slovenia and Iceland in the space of four days.
Good results in those games will set up a mouthwatering, winner-takes-all clash against the group leaders Switzerland in Tirana on 11 October. Automatic qualification would be beyond the wildest dreams of both players and supporters, so used as they are, to abject failure. However, the country are the closest they have ever been in their 84 year history.
What happens next could shape the course of Albanian football for years to come. With a young side and a coach dedicated to finding the very best talent for the national team, Albanian football fans are finally beginning to believe that this may just be their moment in the spotlight.
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