Tonight sees the biggest game in Albanian football history take place at the Elbasan Arena. The Balkan nation have the opportunity to qualify for a major international tournament for the first time in their history.
All that is required is a win in their penultimate match and for Denmark to simultaneously fail to win in Portugal and they’ll be home and hosed. In a qualification process littered with extraordinary performances by smaller nations – Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland all spring to mind – Albania’s campaign still holds up as one of the most impressive.
At the time of the draw last February, Albania were ranked as the 40th best team in Europe and allocated in seeding pot 5, alongside such footballing greats as Moldova, Azerbaijan and neighbours Macedonia. The draw itself was less than favourable, Albania were placed in a group alongside the second highest ranked team in pot 4, Armenia; the highest ranked team in pot 3, Serbia; former European Championship winners, Denmark and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.
It seemed an impossible task for a nation that had won only nine of their last 50 European Championship qualifiers. Incredibly, 18 months later Albania stand on the cusp of qualification and are guaranteed at least a play off place, after victory in Portugal, two battling draws with Denmark and a two goal comeback to defeat Armenia.
There is of course a glaring omission from that list of results, Albania’s trip to Belgrade last October, a game which failed to produce a final score or even last ninety minutes due to some of the most extraordinary and chaotic scenes even seen inside a football stadium. The game was only finally resolved nine months later when three points were added to Albania’s tally via a decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport. As if tonight’s game didn’t have enough significance, it is also the return of that fixture, Albania at home to Serbia.
This is the kind of match football fans dream of; a home tie with their fiercest rivals standing in the way of an historic achievement. Imagine Liverpool being given the opportunity to beat Manchester United at Anfield to win a 21st title, or an El Classico Champions League final at the Camp Nou; or Wrexham hosting Chester in the second leg of a Championship play off semi final.
The opportunity to be able to create the atmosphere that inevitably lifts your team into overcoming their nemesis and entering an unknown level of sporting glory; it’s the kind of things that gives dedicated fans goosebumps.
Unfortunately, many supporters of the Albanian national team are going to be denied this once in a generation opportunity. This is because despite the political underpinnings of all those rivalries, none carry the weight of history of Albania against Serbia, not even Wrexham v Chester. Despite its immense footballing importance, tonight’s match has transcended football. It is no longer a game of football – it is a political event.
One politician looking to maximise his potential political revenue from the occasion is Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, a man keen to present himself to the world, and especially the European Union, as a peacemaker in the Balkans. Rama and his party are determined for the game to run smoothly, for Albania to “honour its traditions of hospitality”. The occasion must be an impeccable demonstration of good Albanian citizenship and, crucially, ‘Europeanism’.
In order to achieve this aim Rama has taken a number of extraordinary steps. A relentless stream of official statements have been made promising high levels of security at the stadium. 2,300 police officers and 400 private security guards have been employed to patrol the stadium and areas surrounding Elbasan to ensure that this time a conclusion can be reached – no repeats of last year in Belgrade.
The match will be preceded the night before by a state organised concert featuring musicians from Serbia, Albania and the disputed territory of Kosovo. Invites to sit alongside Rama during the match have been sent to both Kosovar Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hasim Thaci, and the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. Also invited is a group of 70 carefully chosen Serbian students to cheer on their national side.
Rama appears desperate to turn the event into a festival of positive Serb-Albanian relations. His organised choreographing of the crowd has shades of North Korean totalitarianism and is engaging in a level of political exploitation of sport that might even make Boris Johnson blush.
The real blockade to Rama’s ambitions of course are those pesky, rebellious fans; the ones who have supported Albania through thin and thinner and might express themselves and cause trouble. However, he appears to have found a solution via the medium of ticket distribution for the game from the Albanian Football Federation (AFF).
The Elbasan Arena has an official capacity of less than 13,000 and demand for the game is huge, tickets on the black market have reached prices of around €500 in a country where average monthly salary is under €400.
Tickets are typically distributed via three channels. One stand behind the goal is reserved for online sales to the public via the AFF’s website. Amounting to around 700 tickets, these sold out in under an hour. The rest are either reserved for individuals selected by the AFF or distributed to official organised fan groups around the Albanian speaking world to sell to its members.
For the Serbia match the ratio for these two methods of distribution seem to be heavily skewed towards the former with a highly selective admission policy to the stadium in place. Reports have even emerged that men designated tickets from official channels must be accompanied to the stadium by a woman.
Official fan club ‘Tifozat Kuq e Zi’ meanwhile have reported receiving a ‘limited’ number of tickets from the AFF in a statement made on their website on September 20th. The statement added that they would be a selecting which members would be given a ticket carefully in order to minimise the chances of any ‘dishonour’ to the nation brought about by a repeat of scenes in Belgrade last year with Albanian perpetrators.
A limited and selective allocation for members of ‘Tifozat Kuq e Zi’ is still a step up from many other fan groups, who received no tickets from the AFF whatsoever. Particularly ignored were Albanian fan groups from outside of Albania’s official borders in Macedonia and Kosovo, fans who typically provide some of the country’s most passionate support. ‘Shvercerat’, the fan group associated with KF Shkupi, who represent Skopje’s Albanian community and ‘Ballistet’, the fan group for ‘KF Shkendija’ from Tetovo were both denied any allocation.
The only group from outside of Albania’s official territories who received tickets from the AFF were ‘Plisat’, a group connected to KF Prishtina, the largest team from the Kosovan capital. A bizarre selection of representative considering the group’s recent rap sheet, which includes fighting with Legia Warsaw fans in Tirana before a Europa League match with Kukes in August and another scuffle with fans from a rival Kosovan fan group in Elbasan before Albania v Armenia in March. The decision process behind which fan groups received tickets and which didn’t seems arbitrary at best.
It’s not just groups that have been denied access. Ismail Morina, better known by his nickname ‘Ballisti’, also fails to impress the bouncers at the doors of the stadium, the AFF and Edi Rama. Morina is the creator and operator of the drone aircraft and flag that caused the disruption to the match in Belgrade last October and resulted in the AFF being fined €50,000.
Despite an AFF announcement declaring he would not be allowed entry to the stadium, Morina posted a video of himself in possession of a ticket and a strong message for the Serbian team and authorities. The next day Morina was arrested for the possession of an unlicensed pistol, he was also carrying 36 tickets to the match.
Reactions to Rama and the AFF’s door policy have been mixed amongst fan groups. ‘Shvercerat’ posted an understanding message to their Facebook page, claiming that, for the sake of the higher national interest, they respected the decision of the football authorities to deny them entrance to the stadium as this was clearly ‘more than a match’. They also invited their members to a public screening in Skopje’s Skanderberg square to support the team.
‘Tifozat Kuq e Zi‘ initially also supported the stringent entry policy as the best method to prevent any disruption to Albania’s qualification coming from the stands. However, the decisions to invite Vucic and the Serbian student contingent whilst banning Morina altered the group’s perspective.
On Friday they posted an angry, threatening statement addressed to the AFF and Edi Rama questioning the decisions and asking the authorities not to “incite discontent”, “play with [our] emotions” or “experiment with our patience”. Rama appears to be playing a risky balancing act with his international audience and passionate football loving populace. His attempts to create a harmonious evening may even have the opposite effect.
Equally discontented are KF Shkendija’s ‘Ballistet’ group. In regard to the notion that this game was ‘more than a football match’ the group argued that almost every Macedonian league match they took part in as a team from the Albanian minority of Macedonia has a similar edge. They had a strong message for Edi Rama and head of the AFF Armand Duka at last weekend’s match with Shkupi, insulting the pair of them and questioning Rama’s commitment to Albanians outside his territory.
Rama may get his peaceful Balkan showcase but in doing so he may have alienated football supporters from across the Albanian speaking world, destroying their dreams and robbing football of one of its most electric atmospheres. For fans stuck at home, even an Albanian victory may be bittersweet.