Euro 2024: Success of Albania and Others Yields Euros for All of Europe

Edi Rama’s best friend during the World Cup summer of 1982 just so happened to be the one person he knew who owned a color television. So every evening, Rama would find himself crammed into his kitchen with countless others, desperately hoping that the fuzzy, flickering signal would hold.

Albania was an island back then, under the repressive, conspiracist rule of Enver Hoxha. Foreign travel was banned for all but a select few insiders. Even communication with the outside world, particularly the West, was limited. Rama and his friends could only follow that World Cup through what he has subsequently called a “dark network” operated by RAI, the Italian state broadcaster.

In a recent interview with Italy’s Tuttosport, he said that he still remembers that month warmly. Italy served as Albania’s avatar for the tournament; the two countries, in Rama’s estimation, are “a people divided by the sea, but united in everything else, similar as two drops of water.” When Dino Zoff, the Italian captain, eventually lifted the trophy in Madrid, it felt like victory in Tirana, too. “We saw it in his hands, as if it were also in ours,” Rama said.

Triumph, though, was really something of a bonus. More than anything, what stayed with Rama from that summer, decades before he would become prime minister of Albania, was the sensation that there was life outside of his country. The commentators’ words, he said, “had the indescribable effect on us of not feeling alone in that black hole.”

At the opening of an exhibition earlier this year about the life of Paolo Rossi, one of the great Italian heroes of that tournament, Rama put it even more eloquently. “Soccer was not only the ball and the game for us, it was the image of another world,” he said. “It was the chance to see a moving mirror, a forbidden dream.

Forty years on, Rama has not forgotten that power. He has been prime minister since 2013, and he has rarely missed an opportunity to use sport in general — he played basketball in his youth — and soccer in particular as a way to not only win votes but also define a nation.

Last year, he ran a nationwide competition to find architects to design three new stadiums, in the cities of Durres, Vlore and Korce. During a local election campaign, at least part of his platform centered on a deal he had reached with Manchester City that will see City, the Premier League champion, open a soccer school in Durres. In 2022, Tirana hosted the final of the Europa Conference League.

That is in stark contrast to much of the country’s soccer history. In a soccer sense, Albania has always lagged behind even the rest of Eastern Europe. Under Hoxha, the country’s teams frequently refused to take part in international competitions, fearing that players would defect once they were exposed to the West.

In the years after Hoxha was deposed, Albania’s clubs had so little income that match-fixing and corruption became rife. There is also little or no youth development in Albania: Only eight members of the 26-strong squad representing the country at this year’s European Championship were born there. The rest are products of the diaspora, tracing their roots variously to Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Slough, the London satellite town that boasts of being the setting for the original version of “The Office” and the birthplace of the Albanian forward Armando Broja.

To Rama, of course, seeing the team take its place this summer among Europe’s elite will serve as proof that his work is starting to bear fruit. Albania, at last, is starting to come in from the cold. And at the same time, something similar is happening across much of Eastern Europe.

While Albania is an extreme case, what it has endured in the three decades since the fall of Communism has echoes elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc. Youth facilities that had been financed by the state fell into disrepair. Corruption became rampant. Team owners and player agents extracted what little money remained from the professional system. Clubs in the West pounced at the slightest glimmer of talent.

And it felt, for a long time, as if the decay was irreversible. Romania has not qualified for a World Cup since 1998. Serbia had not been to a European Championship since 2000. No Eastern European team has made the semifinal of a European Championship since Russia did so in 2008. Until 2016, only a handful even managed to qualify for the tournament.

This time, though, Eastern Europe boasts 11 of the 24 teams in the field. More important, the opening week of the tournament has made clear that they are not simply the fortunate beneficiaries of the competition’s slightly ungainly expansion.

Georgia, the lowest-ranked team in the Euros, ran Turkey close in its debut game at a major tournament. Slovenia took a point against Denmark. Serbia came close to doing the same against England. Portugal required two late and lucky goals to get past the Czech Republic. Romania, in the Munich sunshine, shone in a victory over Ukraine.

And Albania, having taken the lead against Italy with the quickest goal the European Championship has ever seen, went on to take a point against Croatia — the country that has, for years, been the exception to the Eastern European rule — and still has, in theory, a chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.

It is, admittedly, a slim chance — Albania would most likely have to beat Spain on Monday in Düsseldorf. More likely, too, is that by the time the semifinals roll around, they will once again be a distinctly Western affair.

That may be all but inevitable. International soccer is now defined by club soccer. The best players, the best coaches and the best ideas migrate to the richest, most powerful leagues, enabling them to produce young players at an industrial scale.

Which other national teams will be successful is determined, to a large extent, by where those leagues choose to invest their money, their time and their resources. The best players are often found where Europe’s major teams tend to look. That favors countries like Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands — all scouted comprehensively, with reams of data produced on each and every young player — over places like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, which feel just a little less familiar, just a little more distant.

The playing field may be sufficiently weighted against Eastern Europe to prevent the balance from ever truly shifting; it may be that economic reality means that Romania can never reach another World Cup quarterfinal, or that the Czechs will come within a golden goal of being champion of Europe.

The first week of Euro 2024, though, has suggested not only that the gap can be closed — even if only by a little — but that doing so is in the interests of both this tournament and European soccer as a whole. The European Championship is better when it feels like it is truly representative of the continent, when those emissaries of soccer’s other world have come in from the cold.

FOOL ME TWICE It is a beloved convention of the soccer commentariat that, on the eve of a major tournament, we are encouraged to indulge in a little soothsayer cosplay. Everyone who is anyone, and quite a few who are not, is asked to deliver two predictions: an overall winner, and a surprise package.

The first is quite easy. There are a limited number of genuine contenders to win a tournament: a maximum of eight for the European Championship, and 10 for the World Cup.

The second task is much trickier. In part, that is because the field is — naturally — much larger. But mainly it is because nobody knows what the rules are.

How far does a surprise package have to progress for your prediction to be correct? Are you suggesting they might win it? Or reach the semifinals? Or bow out bravely in the round of 16, having given one of the favorites a scare? Can the Dutch be a dark horse? Can Croatia? How about Italy?

The answers to these questions are entirely personal, but the uncertainty over the parameters generally means that, for years, everyone has nominated one of two countries: Turkey or, at a push, Serbia.

This time, nobody wanted to fall into that trap. Turkey had been anointed as the outsider for Euro 2020 and promptly lost all three of its group games. Serbia has never won a knockout game as an independent nation, and last qualified for the European Championship in 2000. Even soccer journalists cannot ignore evidence that overwhelming.

And so it was with considerable alarm that I watched Turkey beat Georgia in its opening game, in a downpour in Dortmund, by scoring two wonderful goals and playing a thrilling, open style. The opposition was limited, of course, but at the same time, a hesitant thought ran through my head: I think Turkey might be the dark horse of this tournament.

SHOW OF FORCE Plenty has been made of the travails of Germany’s public transport infrastructure over the first week of the tournament — more on that soon — but just as noteworthy has been the highly visible, and vaguely threatening, presence of squadrons of riot police on the streets of the host cities.

As a rule, this sort of policing is now seen by quite a few countries as counterproductive, a way of fostering an unnecessarily confrontational atmosphere. Far better, according to both academics and several law enforcement agencies, to rely on intelligence — often provided by undercover officers, strategically placed within groups of fans — than intimidation.

German authorities have very obviously taken a different approach, canceling all leave for the month of tournament and making sure that fans know they are being policed at all times. They would, doubtless, point to last week’s incident in which a man with an ax was shot not far from the fan zone in Hamburg as justification for that decision. It creates the impression, though, that Germany is very much a country on edge.

THE WOOD AND THE TREES Perhaps one factor in Germany’s apparent logistical difficulty in hosting this tournament is that so many of its stadiums have been built in wooded areas. For more police officers than you would expect, then, that means spending much of this month in or near a forest.

Hamburg and Frankfurt, particularly, have unusually bucolic settings, while Cologne could be described as forest-adjacent. The stadiums in Düsseldorf and Berlin are sufficiently distant from the centers of their respective cities that they have a distinctly sylvan vibe. I will not pretend to know why this is, but my working theory is that it is an atavistic recollection of the defeat of Varus at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

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