Euro 2016 – Albania

Albania will be competing at their first major tournament when they take to the field against Switzerland on Saturday, 11th June. The Albanians qualified for Euro 2016 under the leadership of Italian coach Gianni De Biasi, who remained with the Balkans and built on a promising 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign where they picked up 11 points in a tough group.

The Albanians will surely be relying on their solid defence to get them over the line as they may struggle in the goals department in France. Albania only scored seven times in qualifying which was the lowest of all the teams that secured automatic qualification. That said, one positive aspect was that those seven goals were all scored by different players, which shows the character and unpredictability of the squad.

It will certainly be a tough ask to get out of Group A which also contains hosts France, Switzerland, and Romania but it certainly promises to be a memorable tournament for the country of just under 3 million. Interestingly, Taulant and Granit Xhaka, will line-up in opposing midfields when Albania play Switzerland in their opening game after the brothers’ parents fled their native Kosovo in 1989 before the start of the Yugoslavia War.

With the team still being relatively unknown on the international stage, we spoke with Eastern European football writer Charles Ducksbury about what to expect from the team this summer.

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After somewhat surprisingly finishing second behind Portugal to reach the finals, what do you think of the team’s chances in Euro 2016?

Albania are clearly not going to be amongst the favourites to win Euro 2016, and will do very well to qualify from their group. They are alongside France, Switzerland and Romania so it’ll be tough. Progressing will the ambition for a country entering their first-ever major tournament.

What happened between Serbia and Albania in the qualifying – did the trouble all stem back from the Yugoslavian war?

Some people have written books about the politics and tensions in the Balkan regions and we are still nowhere near close to understanding the conflicts. Yugoslavia was a very diverse country and the glue that held it together was Josip Tito (the former President until 1980). When he died, nationalism was rampant and that in effect is what started the war. The short story of the troubles between Serbia and Albania is that Serbia sees Kosovo as it’s ‘heart’ as such, whilst Albanians believe the region is part of a ‘greater’ Albania which also includes parts of modern day Serbia.

The drone that flew over Partizan Stadium contained a map of the ‘Greater Albania’ which incited a crowd already on edge. Once players started fighting the fans got involved and Albanian players and officials were attacked. UEFA had a tough job deciding who was to blame and both associations were punished, though both believe the other was to blame.

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How did the Albanian public and media react when qualification was confirmed?

Naturally, because it was Albania’s first-ever appearance at a major tournament, the euphoria was as expected. Also denying Serbia was considered a reason for celebration in itself.

Prime minister Edi Rama wrote an open-letter to coach Gianni De Biasi thanking him for delivering qualification, stating words cannot do justice for his gratitude.

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Who were the stand-out players during the qualifying process?

Albania are certainly a team and contain no ‘star’ players as such. They score plenty of goals from set-pieces, and forward Sokol Cikalleshi has become a key man for Di Biasi’s men. Though he has only netted twice whilst representing Albania, he has scored goals wherever he has played, netting ten for RNK Split last season and six for Istanbul Basaksehir this term.

Do the Albanians have any chance of making it out of Group A?

Of course they have a chance. Albania can probably write off the France game but will feel they are capable of beating a poor Romania and at least drawing against Switzerland, a game which will strangely see the Xhaka brothers face off for opposing countries.

Albania are relatively unknown on the international stage – what can we expect from them in terms of tactics this summer?

It’s all about set-pieces. Albania are a strong, tall team which will always look to take advantage of free-kicks, corners and throws. They very rarely take the initiative in games and will certainly sit back in this tournament. Di Biasi is a known disciplinarian who was often hired in Italy as someone to fight relegation, and he has transferred that siege-like mentality to his adopted country. He’ll aim to draw all three games and hopefully steal a win in one of them.

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Which of the team to you expect to be on the move after the finals and your tips for the key players to watch out for?

Elseid Hysaj is a player I really admire. I’m not sure he’ll be on the move, but because he’s an attacking full-back he catches the eye. Perhaps if he impresses in the tournament he could be subjected to some interest, but Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri rates him highly.

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What is the state of domestic football nowadays? Is it a case of all the best players immediately being snapped up by better leagues or does it have some quality domestically?

Skenderbeu are the dominant side domestically, and occasionally have a good foray into Europe. Most players do leave early to go to bigger leagues, and I’m pretty sure every player in the squad plays away from Albania except one of the goalkeepers. Sadly, money dictates and clubs want players as young as possible.

A huge thanks goes out to Charles Ducksbury for agreeing to the interview and answering our questions in such depth. Charles is an Eastern European football writer that has been featured on ESPN, CNN, and in excellent publications like The Blizzard and FourFourTwo, so please be sure to follow him on Twitter for regular updates!

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