Mother Teresa and Norman Wisdom are not two people you would automatically place together in the same sentence. Or indeed the same conversation. Or even think about on the same day. But both have one thing in common with Euro 2016.
The nun was born to a Kosovo Albanian family and was christened with an Albanian name although her place of birth is Skopje in Macedonia. Claimed by both countries, were she alive now where her loyalties would lie on September 5 when the two meet in a World Cup qualifier is anyone’s guess.
Due to selective censorship during the Enver Hoxha years, Wisdom films were the only foreign imports to be seen on the big screen. The dictator evidently saw them as a Communist parable on class war and they were therefore deemed suitable for public consumption.
Apart from the above, what else is know about Albania?
Not too much is the honest answer. Ask the average person in the street and they would probably say that Albania is’ an impoverished, eastern European former Communist dictatorship whose Highway Code covers bikes and donkeys’. At least, the reasonably educated person in the street may say that!
Albania’s participation in Euro 2016 – their first major international football competition ever – could be seen in the same light as Norman Wisdom’s films. Their second game is against 1998 World Cup winners and two-times European Champions France. Albania versus France in a major tournament?
Look through the names of Albania’s squad and the names of Japanese children’s cartoon characters come to mind. Roshi, Cana, Gashi and Lila are household names……in Albania. Up front, they appear to have a well-known numbers games playing for them with Sadiku at number 10. When I read out the name of another striker – Abrashi – I received ‘bless you’ in response.
This is not an attempt to ridicule the achievement of Albania in reaching Euro 2016 nor is it an assassination of their playing squad. Far from it. The fact that a nation as small as Albania with no real footballing heritage to speak of has qualified for the competition is amazing. You can bet that the French starting eleven on June 15 will not be thinking about anything other than getting through the match with what will expected at home to be a good win. Imagine the nightmares every player must have the night before the game worrying ‘what if?’.
When Cameroon beat the holders Argentina in the opening match of the 1990 World Cup, we knew we were in for a great competition. The cheers from the England supporters watching that night in Port Stanley could be heard across the South Atlantic. If Albania could sneak a result against a squad boasting Giroud, Griezmann, Martial, Pogba et al, the sound waves would make it a rough night for anyone considering a moonlight crossing of Le Channel that night.
Albania may return home with 3 defeats. Even with that behind them, any disappointment will be tempered with a renewed passion to make Russia 2018 and beyond. But stranger things have happened at tournaments in the past including the Cameroon – Argentina result. With Romania also in their group alongside the sometimes inconsistent Swiss, additional qualification places up for grabs through a revised system, and an element of the unknown on their side, one result could thrust their squad into territory the type of which even they did not dare dream. If they can get out of that group, who knows what they could do?
Albania do have one major advantage over England – a distinct lack of expectations at home. Come the third week in June, they may have a second – progression through the group stages.
It could happen.