Andy Mitten is taking the alternative route around France for Euro 2016. While most journalists will be packing press boxes, Andy will follow the fans and the buzz to bring you an alternative take on the tournament. Here is Day 10 from Lyon.
Along with the 40,000 strong English support in Marseille, the biggest travelling army of fans in France so far has been the Albanians. Playing in their first major international tournament, their red and black filled 80 per cent of the stadium in Lyon on Sunday night.
“I could attend one game and I chose this one, the one I thought we could get tickets for and the one I thought we had a chance of winning,” explained Dashmir Istrefi, a 31-year-old IT operations manager, who flew from Skopje, Macedonia to Basel, Switzerland ahead of a drive to Lyon. The Macedonian capital is divided between Albanians and Macedonians, while Switzerland has around 400,000 members of the huge Albanian diaspora, which is also concentrated heavily in Germany, Italy, Greece and Turkey. In Albania, it is estimated that emigrant remittances account for 18 per cent of the country’s GDP.
In Lyon for their game against Romania, they impressed locals with their friendliness and passion, a shot in the arm for a people who have suffered prejudice in Western Europe.
Only a win would keep their hopes alive of a place in the last 16, but Albanians had reason to feel optimistic as they sang around Lyon’s beautiful old town and Place Bellecour, which had been turned into a fanzone.
“We played very well against France and held out until near the end,” Dashmir said. “We were unlucky against Switzerland and missed an open goal after 87 minutes. We just need a little luck, just one goal.”
Read more of Andy Mitten’s dispatches from France
• Day 9: St-Etienne is steeped in rich football history, just ask the English
• Day 8: Inside the Croatia storm with a 'sports terrorists' minority
• Day 7: Atmosphere is just the ticket for Northern Ireland and their fans
• Day 6: Marseille booming again thanks to France and Albania
In the packed streets of the old town, not far from where England fans were gathering ahead of their game in nearby St Etienne, Albanians lifted a disabled boy in his wheelchair above the crowd as they sang songs from their homeland. The boy looked delighted.
At the stadium, I sat next to Dashmir and his cousin Redon, a 20-year-old student. They live close to the stunning Lake Ohrid and planned to drive through the night back to Basel after the game before a flight back home. They surveyed the scene, a stadium bursting with the red and black of Albania and slightly innocent songs such as Red and Black and We want a victory.
“We are so proud,” Dashmir said. “Look at this!”
But they were nervous, too. Nervous when Romania attacked, when one of their attackers missed another open goal in the first half. Maybe they were cursed.
Fans waved flags of the Greater Albania they hope will one day be a united Albania as a nation, not as a country. Not that governments in Athens, Belgrade and Skopje would agree.
Then Armando Sadiku, a 25-year-old striker who plays his club football on loan in Liechtenstein, scored with a looping header after 43 minutes, their first ever tournament goal. The stadium erupted. People hugged and cried in disbelief. They were surprised and delighted to reach the finals; they didn't think it could be any better than when they beat Armenia to qualify. But it is; now they were winning in a match.
At half time, Dashmir explains Albania’s complicated history.
“We’ve usually chosen the wrong allies in wars,” he explains as he talks of a country under Ottoman rule. They claimed independence in 1913, their government a monarchy. At different times they were invaded by the Austro Hungarians, Germans and Italians before they became a communist state behind the Iron Curtain. Life was tough, economic progress stifled as Albania became one of Europe’s poorest countries. Millions moved abroad in search of a better life; war in the late 1990s in Kosovo meant another wave of emigration. Dashmir was born in the United States. He has a master’s degree, now he’s putting it to good use back among his people: Catholics, Muslim and orthodox Christians.
Albania’s lead is slender and Romania threaten. The Albanian fans can barely watch, but try to support their team.
“Shqiperi,” they sing. “Shqiperi, Shqiperi, Shqiperi.” It means Albania in Albanian.
“It’s a vest with linen stripes,” they sing, one of their favourite songs. “It is Kosovo, It is Albania, Ciftelia [an Albanian instrument] sings like a heartbeat, Oh, how big, it’s Albania!”
They survive the yellow waves of Romanian attacks, but when Romania get an 87th minute free kick close to the Albania goal, it’s too much for many fans. They turn away from the pitch, they can hardly watch. Score and they are out. There is no goal. Albania surge upfield. Midfielder Odise Roshi urges the fans to raise their game, waving his arms frantically as if to say “We need you!” The fans respond. Andi Lila, a 30-year-old defender with 59 caps who plays in Greece, begs the crowd for more support. He’s desperate. Again, they respond. It’s magnificent, sport intertwining perfectly with the feelings of a people. “Shqiperi! Shqiperi! Shqiperi!”
After five agonising minutes of injury time, the final whistle blows and the celebrations begin. On the field, in the stands, in the dressing room. In Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and in the vast Albanian diaspora, the bars in Dusseldorf or Stockholm. More tears, more joy. Midfielder Amir Abrashi drops to his knees and screams.
Albania’s Italian coach Giovanni De Biasi said afterwards: “I’m a positive person and I think we deserve it. We’ve shown we can play these games against top teams who have more quality than us.”
Even the Romania coach admitted that the best weapon for Albania was their fans, while Albania’s prime minister Edi Rama congratulated his players and promised them all a diplomatic passport.
As the Albanian fans continued to celebrate throughout the night Dashmir and Redon returned to their car ahead of a drive through the night back to Switzerland.
“Unfortunately the car wasn’t there,” Dashmir says. “It had been picked up by the police for bad parking. We spent a couple of hours trying to locate the car from the police. It had been moved to a lot with cars from 30 other Albanians.”
At 06.39am on Monday morning, Dashmir sent his final email.
“Gotta sleep now. The party is over.”
At least for now. If England win their group, they could play Albania next.
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