By Llazar Semini ,AP
TAIPEI, Taiwan — For a country that spent nearly half the last century in international isolation, it’s hard to overstate the emotions associated with Albania’s qualification to its first major tournament.
Soccer once offered the tiny Balkan country a rare chance to interact with the outside world, but for 25 years since the fall of communism Albania never got past the qualifiers — not until Oct. 11.
The Eagles booked their place in France with a 3-0 win in Armenia — their only qualification victory by more than a one-goal margin. The country of 3.2 million went into full party-mode and players returned to Tirana with the capital city draped in the national colors of red and black.
Group I qualification drew world attention when the Albanians traveled to Serbia and the match was canceled after a drone carrying a nationalist Albanian banner buzzed onto the pitch. It triggered a diplomatic incident as well as violence on and off the pitch.
Albania was awarded the points, adding momentum to a campaign that started with a surprise 1-0 victory in Portugal.
Italian coach Giovanni de Biasi delivered a disciplined side forged from players scattered in mid-table clubs around Europe — a team that could prove unpredictable with six different players scoring a goal each in qualification.
Here’s a look at three key players and the coach.
Loric Cana At the heart of Albania’s defense is Lorik Cana, the team captain. Currently at French club Nantes, Cana is the country’s best known player, with previous contracts at Lazio, Paris Saint-Germain, and Premier League club Sunderland.
Cana’s sturdy defense was key to Albania’s low-scoring victories. The country’s most expensive player, Elseid Hysaj, is also a defender at Napoli.
The 32-year-old Cana was born in neighboring Kosovo, which is not represented in soccer internationally and supplies much of Albania’s talent as well as its rowdiest fan contingent. Ledian Memushaj Typical of Albania’s hardworking midfield is Ledian Memushaj, who plays in Italy for second-division club Pescara. The 29-year-old Memushaj and fellow midfielders like Luzern’s Migjen Basha are tasked with out-running and out-tackling opponents to gain the advantage. Albania has pulled itself up to 38th place in the world rankings under De Biasi’s leadership from its typical position in the mid-80s.
Bekim Balaj In a team with no star attackers, Bekim Balaj was the country’s scoring threat. The 24-year-old forward hammered in the classy winning goal against Portugal, with an acrobatic turn to bury a cross from Odise Roshi. Sokol Cikalleshi of Turkish club Basaksehir and Ermir Lenjani of Nantes could pair with Balaj, while 18-year-old Inter Milan striker Rey Manaj is also seeking a place on the Euro roster.
Coach Giovanni De Biasi
The Italian coach swiftly ended squabbles in the national team when he took over four years ago, attracting players back and producing a more professional environment. As a player and coach, he was involved at multiple clubs around Italy, but has probably never been more adored than in his adopted home.
“Our qualification is proof that a small country can achieve a big dream,” De Biasi said after qualifying in Yerevan, Armenia. “We got here, not because we are better than others, but because we fight as a team.”