While there is no desire among Albanian football fans to look back to that fateful Tuesday evening in September 2011, when the national team went down 2-1 to Luxembourg, the fact is that the disappointment felt in the wake of that defeat has been hard to forget.
That reverse came in the qualifiers for UEFA EURO 2012, a campaign that marked another low point for the Shqiponjat (“The Eagles”), who finished one place off the bottom of their group, well adrift of the top two, France and Bosnia and Herzegovina, not to mention Romania and Belarus.
The Albanians are looking nowhere but forward these days, however. Yet though the present and the future have never looked brighter for the national team, coach Gianni de Biasi is mindful of the dangers that come with success.
“We’re in a fantastic position right now,” the 59-year-old Italian told FIFA.com. “We are very proud and deliriously happy. But the situation we’ve put ourselves in also means that we have to pull off the toughest of all challenges.”
History in the making?
The Italian took over three months after that defeat to Luxembourg and has since engineered a reversal in Albanian fortunes. The turnaround, which has seen the little Balkan nation climb to an all-time high of 22nd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, has been so impressive that its 2.8 million inhabitants are rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
Further underscoring Albania’s sudden improvement is the fact that France and Bosnia and Herzegovina, two sides who had finished so far above them in the EURO 2012 qualifiers, now trail them in the Ranking.
De Biasi’s charges have been in impressive form to say the least, their recent 1-0 friendly defeat of the French at Qemal Stafa Stadium in Tirana triggering a nationwide wave of euphoria. The Albanians are also going well in Group I of the EURO 2016 qualifying competition, where they lie second, courtesy of three wins and a draw in their four games to date.
Those victories include a shock 1-0 win away to group favourites Portugal, a result they backed up by holding Denmark to a 1-1 draw. As those performances show, the Balkan side fully deserve this month’s 14-place jump up the Ranking.
Food for thought
Albania have earned the place they currently hold in the European elite, with qualification for the next EURO finals, which will be contested by 24 teams for the first time, now a genuine possibility. Yet with optimism growing, De Biasi is anxious to play down expectations.
“We play attractive football and the results are coming our way,” commented the former Torino, Udinese and Levante coach. “We couldn’t be happier, and that’s great, but we can’t afford to get ahead of ourselves and start thinking about the finals.”
“The road to France is long and full of pitfalls. If we let our success go to our heads and we start thinking we’ve qualified, then we’ll only end up beating ourselves.”
Those words are spoken from experience, by a man who has a strong affinity with the people of Albania.
“What is it that I like about them most? They’re so proud and passionate, though that can make my job difficult sometimes,” he explained. “I have to make them understand that they absolutely must take each game as it comes.”
Given that approach, it is no surprise that De Biasi should describe Albania’s trip to the Danish capital next Friday as “the match of his life”.
Striking a balance
Despite his cautious words, the coach has unshakeable faith in his players: “Albania has always produced great footballers. The likes of Altin Rrakkli and Igli Tare come to mind. But my team is just exceptional.
“Every one of my internationals is capable of letting his inspiration and creativity do the talking. My role is to find a tactical system that brings the best out of them. I’m always looking for the right balance between imagination and collective discipline, and my players can now pick each other out with their eyes closed. Nothing gives me more pleasure than that.”
With a mentor like De Biasi at the helm, the Shqiponjat might just be able to find the road to EURO 2016 with their eyes closed too.