Euro 2016 will be Albania’s first-ever major international tournament, with this current crop of players having upset huge odds to make it to France. Of all the teams to do so, only fellow debutantes Iceland would have been more un-fancied at the start of the arduous qualification process. Italian-born coach Gianni De Biasi has overseen a gradual process of improvement since he arrived in Albania in 2011, and there can be no doubt that he has led them to the pinnacle of their soccer history. They’re unlikely to pull up trees once the action gets going, but by merely qualifying, these players have earned their place in the history books.
There’s an even bigger reason for them to ensure that they enjoy their major tournament experience in France: Albanian soccer faces an uncertain future. The bloody history of the Balkans has left a legacy in which nation, state and soccer team are not concordant in the eyes of all inhabitants. And FIFA’s recent admission of Kosovo, in which ethnic Albanians make up the majority of the population — and which remains internationally only a partially recognized state — threatens to split the pool from which the Albanian national team can currently draw their talent.
The man who will captain the Albanian national team in France (Lorik Cana) was born in the Kosovo capital, Pristina. The current captain of the Kosovo national team (Samir Ujkani) received 20 Albania caps before quitting to play for the new Kosovo side. It’s clear that the decision henceforth will be a complicated one for young players, whose ethnic identity offers little guidance in a question of footballing nationalism. According to one report, a friendly played between the two teams in November had a reduced attendance, with the largest supporters group of the Albanian team absenting themselves in opposition.
It’s unlikely to be much consolation for Albanian nationalists, but in soccer terms, at least, the Albanian national team will still be able to recruit talent from beyond the borders of Albania and Kosovo. Incumbent coach De Biasi has tapped into a large diaspora, including a contingent of players born in Switzerland. A particularly telling example is that of Taulant Xhaka, whose parents were part of a large migration from Kosovo to Switzerland around the start of the Yugoslav Wars. His brother, Granit — recently snapped up by Arsenal — will play for Switzerland at the Euros; Taulant, despite having spent his entire domestic career at Basel, and representing Switzerland at every single youth level, has opted to represent Albania instead. In a peculiar twist of fate, the two brothers will meet as these sides open their respective campaigns in Lens on June 11.
This large diaspora has given the Albanian national team a paradoxically international character, which perhaps serves to make the achievements of coach De Biasi all the more impressive. With a relatively young bunch of players from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, he’s managed to mold an extremely cohesive and disciplined tactical unit, whose organization on the pitch is their defining characteristic. They don't score many goals — in qualifying, half of their 10 goals came against basement side Armenia, and three more were awarded by default after their politically charged match against Serbia was abandoned — but equally, they don’t concede many.
In that regard they're certainly helped by the recent blooming of some fine young defensive talents; of the 10 defenders included in their provisional squad, over half are 23 years old or younger. Perhaps the pick of the bunch is fullback Elseid Hysaj, who heads into the Euros on the back of an outstanding domestic campaign with Italian giants Napoli.
France and Switzerland will certainly be expecting to pick up victories in their matches over Albania, and even a poor Romania side may still head into the match as slight favorites. But all three should be wary of complacency. This Albania team is filled with the exuberance of youth, and the excitement of a major international tournament. That only complements a style of play that emphasizes tireless industry both in and out of possession. They’re certainly not the most exciting or star-studded of teams, but Albania’s unlikely run to the Euros is one of the tournament’s greatest stories. For that reason alone, they’ll be worth following.