Albania take great leap forward
© AFP

Nowhere was the current vogue for Dutch coaching talent more in evidence than at UEFA EURO 2008, where made-in-Holland maestros Marco van Basten, Leo Beenhakker and Guus Hiddink supervised the Netherlands, Poland and Russia respectively. Noteworthy as this was, it came as no surprise, given that teams from the Netherlands have long embraced an attractive attacking game based on blistering pace and precise passing. Another renowned Dutch boss, Arie Haan, set about instilling these virtues in his new Albanian charges at the beginning of the year, with impressive results so far.

The 59-year-old has succeeded in leading the team from the country of 3.2 million inhabitants to a run of two consecutive games without defeat at the start of qualifying for a major tournament for the very first time. Haan’s men opened their campaign for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ in European qualifying Group 1 with a goalless draw at home to Sweden in Tirana, followed by a 3-0 victory over Malta on the same ground. The cynics regarded the subsequent 2-0 defeat in Hungary as proof of a false dawn, but Haan’s troops silenced the doubters with a hugely creditable scoreless draw away to Portugal.

Back in the top 100
Albania appear on the brink of shaking off their long-standing image as one of Europe’s footballing minnows. "It’s nothing more than a good start, but hopefully it’s something we can build on," a confident Haan declared. His optimistic outlook for the future is reflected in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. On the back of their positive run, Albania are up 19 places to 83rd, leapfrogging the likes of Togo, who were good enough to compete at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany.

Albania look back on a modest record in the international game, but added 64 ranking points in September to regain a place in the top 100. This represents a major rebound after the worst single-month slide in their history from 82nd to 100th in July, and treading water in 101st and 102nd in the following months. The roller-coaster effect swung back into action last month, as Haan’s side just missed out on matching their best-ever surge in the ranking, a 20-place leap in July 2006.

Happy as underdogs
Qualifying for a major tournament such as the global showpiece in South Africa under two years from now still remains a distant dream, at least according to playmaker Ervin Skela, who recently spoke exclusively to FIFA.com. "Naturally, we’re lacking in experience and quality. Aiming to acquit ourselves well at international level is one thing, but actually qualifying for a major tournament is another matter altogether. Most of our players don’t play in a top league, so we rarely pit ourselves against the best, and that’s the experience we urgently need."

Skela is one of the select group who play abroad and do indeed benefit from the chance to test their skills at the highest level week after week. The gifted 31-year-old currently plies his trade in the Bundesliga for Energie Cottbus, with previous spells at Eintracht Frankfurt, Kaiserslautern and Ascoli Calcio. Skela has seen quite enough to know that the current qualifying round offers a major opportunity for his country to make a dash on the world footballing stage: "We’re underdogs, but we’re very comfortable with the role," commented the man capped 55 times by Albania.

The midfielder rates Haan as the perfect coach for the men from the Balkans. "He has immense experience and he’s boosted our confidence." Perhaps the wily campaigner still has a surprise or two in store on the long road to South Africa. For one thing, the Albanians are level on points with mighty Portugal at this stage of the campaign. Haan would hardly be the first Dutch boss to mastermind a sensation from the touchlines.