Lorik Cana is a fighter. Anyone who has seen the Albanian give his all in the colours of Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille, Sunderland, Galatasaray, Lazio and now Nantes knows that the tag, which has been applied to him since his early days in the game, is hardly a cliché.
The defender is never anything less than fully committed when playing for his national team either. Capped 89 times in all, the 32-year-old Albania skipper is the heartbeat of the side, and will soon be leading them out at UEFA EURO 2016, where the eastern Europeans will be making their first appearance at a major international tournament.
Cana and his troops will go into battle on 11 June against Switzerland, 13 years to the very day after his international debut, which also came against the Swiss, in Geneva, a mere 60 kilometres away from where he grew up. “It’s a lovely quirk of fate,” smiled the veteran, who spoke to FIFA.com about all the battles he has faced in life and on the pitch.
A fight for survival
"I am from Kosovo. I left with my family in 1990, when the first war with Yugoslavia broke out. Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia at the time and like a lot of our Albanian compatriots who came from there and Macedonia, we found refuge in Switzerland and Germany. I spent ten years of my childhood in Switzerland until I left for France in 2000 to start training with PSG."
"My father was a professional footballer and he played in pretty much the same way as me. He put a lot into it and he was a real winner. He was also very hard on me when I was growing up, both on a personal level and when it came to football. He always pushed me to the very limit to succeed, because he could see that I had what it took. He instilled his values in me and taught me to never give up. My motivation to succeed was also fired by the journey my family had taken and the tough times faced by the people who stayed back home. All that has shaped the player that I am today."
"When I played for PSG reserves, I had this real desire to succeed. Antoine Kombouare was the coach at the time and he helped me overcome all the mental barriers. The war, which was just coming to an end in my home country, also spurred me on to succeed and to make it at Paris. It’s a club where it’s always been difficult for young players from the training academy to break into the first team, which is why I always put a lot of energy and commitment into everything I did, and a lot of physicality too. That’s where I forged the image that’s followed me around everywhere."
"I’ve always wanted to represent Albania and the Albanian people. The opportunity came my way pretty quickly, and it was logical too because I was playing for Paris. I won my first cap at the age of 19 and that’s when the story began. The national team is very special for Albanian people, and there are more of them living outside the country than in it. The team was the means for them to be united for the first time under the same flag and to do something together. A lot of players were born or grew up abroad, and our national team gave us the chance to do great things together for the very first time. That’s what’s helped us to stick together and to qualify for the EUROS after so many twists and turns."
His national team
"I’ve always tried to get the best Albanian players to come and join us. We have a lot of things going for us and we can make the most of them if the conditions are right. We have a lot of very good players who’ve had the chance to develop their game abroad, and it’s that that’s helped us qualify for the EUROS, which was unimaginable three or four years ago. Before the 2000s, we had a team that represented the state of Albania, whereas now we’ve got a team that truly represents all Albanians. The players can feel that.
"The further we got in our qualification campaign, the more people got behind us and the more the pressure grew. We had to learn how to deal with it. My job is to hold things together when they’re not going well and when results aren’t going our way. I try to be a bit of a lightning rod for the others and to take a little bit of the pressure from their shoulders. I also make sure that the new faces are OK and settle into the team quickly. After all, the national team belongs to people who deserve to be there and who really want to be there."
"We have our minds set on one date and that’s 11 June. That first match will be the most important one, and my thoughts are on it and nothing else. I couldn’t possibly have a bigger dream than qualifying with my country for a competition like this, in France. I can’t really say what’s going to happen afterwards because there are a lot of young players around and they are coming on all the time. I’ve supported them through all these years, and you have to step aside for them at some stage. I’ll talk about it with the national association and my family after the EUROS and I’ll make a decision then. It could very well be my last major challenge, though.
"There are a lot of players aged around 23 or 24 and playing in good leagues. They’ll be contributing their energy and desire to what comes next and the qualifiers for the World Cup in Russia, where we’ve been drawn into a tough group with Spain and Italy, though Albania also have what it takes to enjoy a good campaign. As for me, I just want to make the right decision on a personal level and also for the good of the squad and the development and the image of the team.
"It’s essential that the young players achieve the best level they can, but you can’t make them waste too much time either. There’s a whole appraisal process that needs to be gone through, and that’ll have to come after the EUROS and the holidays because it’s been a long season. Even so, even when I won’t be with the team on the pitch, I’ll be right with them off it."