The UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying campaign was not even a day old when it produced its first major shock. On Sunday evening, Bekim Balaj struck a spectacular volley on the turn to secure a surprise 1-0 away win for Albania against the hotly fancied Portuguese in Aveiro. By defeating the 2004 runners-up at their sixth attempt, the *Kuqezijte *suggested they are finally step out of the shadow of Europe’s biggest teams.
“This evening marked a historic victory against a major European team,” Albania captain Lorik Cana proudly told the assembled journalists after the final whistle. “I’m very happy and excited for my country and my compatriots. They all look up to us as the national side, so this success is for them,” the 31-year-old concluded, his thoughts focused on a homeland in which fans celebrated long into the night.
Excitement and enthusiasmThe experienced Cana is already looking ahead to the future with immense anticipation. For Albanian football’s new generation, Sunday’s defeat of a Portuguese side bereft of FIFA Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo could be just the start of a remarkable chapter in their history. “It was a dream start for us, but we’re in a tough group with other top teams like Denmark, Armenia and Serbia,” the Lazio midfielder said. “Thanks to tonight’s win, we now have a chance to fight to the very end. We’ve got a lot of young players and want to keep going at this level.”
Goalscorer Balaj is also confident that Albania can cause a stir en route to the continental showdown in France in two years’ time. “Nobody expected us to win in Portugal,” said the 23-year-old Slavia Prague striker. “We came here to do our best, and I think we did a fantastic job as a team. Now we’re full of hope that we can play like we did today in each of our qualifying matches.”
*Lofty ambitions *Currently ranked 70th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, coach Giovanni de Biasi’s young charges have one clear aim: to compete at their first major international tournament by reaching the finals of the newly expanded 24-team European Championship. The Kuqezijte previously made a name for themselves with 1-0 wins against Slovenia and away to Norway in the preliminary competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, and it appears their Italian coach has set them on the right track.
“It’s wonderful,” said a delighted De Biasi on Sunday evening. “It’s certainly good to beat an opponent ranked 11th in the world,” he concluded, clearly hungry for more of the same when they resume their qualifying campaign next month.