Albania on the up

Albania have enjoyed a very successful 2010, and have now set their sights high for the next 12 months. The national team, drawn from the Balkan nation of three million, occupy a creditable third place in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying Group D behind France and Belarus, and continue to entertain realistic hopes of a second appearance at a major tournament. Back in 1964 in Spain, the Albanians went down 4-1 over two legs to Denmark in the European Championship Round of 16.

A string of good performances in recent months has now had its expected impact on the November edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where the team coached by Josip Kuze have made history by reaching 58th place.

Kuq e Zinjtë, the Red and Blacks, have never landed as high up the list of all 208 FIFA-affiliated national teams since the World Ranking first appeared in August 1993. In July 2006 and then again last month, the Balkan team twice came within a whisker of breaking into the Top 60, but this November’s improvement marks a new milestone in the nation’s football history.

All-time low more than 13 years ago
More than 13 years have passed since the Albanians sank to their all-time low, 124th place in August 1997. Gradual improvement has been the byword since that nadir, as evidenced by some impressive results in qualifying for major tournaments since then.

In the battle for places at EURO 2008, the Albanians drew 2-2 away to Belarus, and also drew with Slovenia and Bulgaria. And in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, there were commendable results in goalless draws with Sweden and eventual finalists Portugal, as well as a 1-1 draw with Denmark.

However, the next step of qualifying for a maiden global showdown or another tilt at the European crown has still proved elusive. That could soon change, especially if the team centred on Serie A star Erjon Bogdani of Cesena and Hannover’s Bundesliga stalwart Altin Lala maintains the discipline which has generally made them hard to beat of late.

Good form in EURO qualifying
Four matches into the campaign for berths at EURO 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, Albania are third in their group and were undefeated until October's 2-0 reverse away to Belarus. They previously beat Luxembourg and took a point apiece in 1-1 draws away to Romania and at home to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Taking 2010 as a whole, Albania have climbed fully 39 places in the World Ranking, from 97th up to 58th, which is also partly attributable to good performances in friendly matches.

After beating Northern Ireland 1-0, Kuze’s men ran up a string of victories by the same score, away to Montenegro and then at home to Andorra and Uzbekistan. Up to and including this week - Wednesday evening’s meeting with FYR Macedonia ended goalless - the Belarus reverse was Albania’s solitary defeat in eight matches, a very impressive run for one of the smaller footballing nations.

Kuze, who took the national helm in May 2009 from luckless Dutch boss Arie Haan, now has until the end of March next year to ready his team for the challenges ahead. On the 26th of the month, seasoned pro Ervin Skela (currently out of contract) and his team-mates entertain Belarus in the reverse EURO 2012 qualifying fixture.