Published 23/05/2016 at 10:00 GMT | Updated 10/06/2016 at 16:55 GMT
“Dearest Gianni,” said the Albanian prime minister Edi Rama to coach Gianni de Biasi the day after the national team’s qualification for Euro 2016 had been confirmed. “Words cannot express my gratitude to you.”
Rama spoke for a nation. Albania had never come close to reaching a major tournament before despite some improvement in the World Cup 2014 qualifiers, and their qualification for Euro 2016 came out of the blue. Few will expect them to go far, and they may find life tougher in the future as they compete for players with new UEFA and FIFA members Kosovo, but their supporters will come from all over the world to savour an unprecedented achievement this summer.
Do they have the firepower to make a go of things? Albania only scored seven times in qualifying if you discount the 3-0 win they were awarded against Serbia. All of the scorers had different identities and, while on one hand it speaks volumes for the character of the side that so many can step up, it is hard to pinpoint a player who can decide games at the highest level. Milot Rashica, the richly talented 19-year-old winger who has a fine season with Vitesse Arnhem, made his debut in March and will add an unpredictability that the squad otherwise lacks if he convinces De Biasi at the pre-tournament training camp.
While Albania look unconvincing further forwards, the core of the side has good top-level experience and will be very tough to break down. Lorik Cana is an inspirational captain with experience in several big leagues while Elseid Hysaj, the right-back, has established himself with Serie A high flyers Napoli and Berat Djimsiti has recently started games for Atalanta. Taulant Xhaka, who incredibly will face his brother Granit in midfield when Albania play Switzerland in their opening game, is a key player for Basel and may find himself on English and German clubs’ radars during the summer.
THE MANAGER: GIANNI DE BIASI
France's coach Didier Deschamps (L) laughs as he speaks with Albania's Italian coach Gianni de Biasi
Image credit: AFP
De Biasi was considering retirement in 2011 when, during a bicycle ride, the phone rang and the rest is history. The well-travelled coach had been sacked by Udinese the previous year and took the Albania job despite knowing little about the country, but has turned a previously aimless international set-up into one of European football’s biggest success stories and has been linked with the vacant position in charge of his homeland, which Antonio Conte will vacate in July. Once seemingly on the scrapheap, De Biasi has become hot property.
TOP THREE PLAYERS
Albania's Lorik Cana (L) vies with Serbia's Aleksandar Mitrovic during the Euro 2016 qualifying football match between Albania and Serbia
Image credit: AFP
Lorik Cana: The heartbeat of Albania’s side is closing in on his 100th cap and nobody will feel prouder when they step out for Albania’s first game at the finals. Cana, now 32 and playing for Nantes, radiates a fire and patriotism that courses through the Albania side.
Elseid Hysaj: Hysaj joined Napoli from Empoli last summer and has been an instant hit for Maurizio Sarri’s side. The tall, quick, technical right-back is just 22 and has already been mentioned in connection with Europe’s very biggest clubs.
Taulant Xhaka: The lesser-known of the Xhaka brothers, the Swiss-born Taulant has become an important player for Albania since debuting in 2014. A versatile footballer across defence or midfield, he plays intelligently and tenaciously in the middle of the park for his country.
SOCIAL MEDIA STAR
Shkelzen Gashi is one of the few Albania players to tweet regularly and he usually does so in English, often posting photos and videos of his life with Colorado Rapids. His output has ranged from footage of team paintball competitions to a cheery Mother’s Day wish to his followers.
JONATHAN WILSON’S KILLER KNOWLEDGE
They play a 4-3-3 that often becomes a 4-5-1. Ermir Lenjani, who operates on the left of midfield, is often a full-back at his club Nantes, while on the right there’s a choice between Andi Lila, another converted full-back, and the more attacking Shkelzen Gashi, who plays in MLS for Colorado Rapids.
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Albania began with possibly the best result in their history, winning in Portugal with a fine Bekim Balaj goal, and followed that with a draw against Denmark. Then came the infamous ‘Drone’ game, when the match in Belgrade against bitter rivals Serbia was abandoned amid chaotic, violent scenes with the score at 0-0. Eventually, Albania were awarded the points and qualified automatically from Group I with a 3-0 win in Armenia a year later despite some inconsistent results inbetween. Any other result from that Serbia fixture would have let the Danes in for second place, but Albania could equally reflect on a campaign in which a superbly-drilled side gave little away and took its chances.