The word Balkan has a particular meaning. It’s an amalgam of the Turkish words bal, meaning honey, and kan, meaning blood. The Ottomans that named this region of the world knew exactly why.
This area of Europe is known for its incredible beauty, but also for its fair share of violence and bitter tension that has been present for hundreds of years. Perhaps that’s why the charisma of the people, and the particular brand of football played there, is so intoxicating. Here, you won’t steer into the doldrums of boredom at any moment. The lows are crippling but the highs enchantingly blissful.
Slaven Bilić will tell you all about the crippling pain, remembering Croatia and Turkey’s epic quarter-final drama at Euro 2008. Lorik Cana and the Albanian nation will tell you all about the enchanting bliss, as Tirana and its native Pristina celebrated Albania’s historic qualification into the night. According to some sources, as many as 26,000 tickets have already been purchased for Albania’s Euro 2016 group matches, largely by the Albanian diaspora around Europe.
Unfortunately, patriotism and its ugly cousin nationalism has held sway over the populations of the Balkan nations, holding them prisoner like a seductive song. When harnessed in a positive light, passion has propelled Balkan sport to great heights.
The dark side of this Illyrian ducat all-too-often boils over into the extremes of hooliganism and outright hatred. The world is familiar with images of open city brawls, ethnic politics mixing with sport and racist slogans and chants directed at opposition players and fans. It’s a problem; there is no way around it, although improvement has been slowly seeping down in some areas.
When reigned in, patriotic fervour has also produced magical results for the small countries that have carved out a piece of this ancient peninsula. Take, for example, the former Yugoslavia. At its zenith, Yugoslavia possessed one of the strongest domestic leagues in Europe at the time outside of the big five, crowned by Red Star winning the European Cup in 1991.
Its multi-ethnic national team qualified for eight World Cups and five European Championships. Yugoslavia took part in two World Cup semi-finals and three quarter-finals, as well as finishing European runners-up twice. In 1993 the country was one of the favourites to win the Euros, but war saw it replaced by Denmark in the finals, who went on to win the whole thing.
Bulgaria reached the group stage at World Cup 1962, ‘66, ‘70, and ‘74. The country reached the last-16 in 1986 and grabbed fourth place in the US in 1994. Most recently, the team reached the group stage of 1998 World Cup.
On the European front, the Bulgarians reached the group stage on two occasions, in 1996 and 2004 respectively. Their neighbours Romania have had similar success: the team qualified for seven World Cups, reaching the last-16 in 1990 and ’98, and finishing as quarter-finalists in 1994. On the European front, the Romanians’ best result came in 2000, finishing as quarter-finalists.
The countries that emerged out of a broken Yugoslavia also achieved tremendous success, too. English fans undoubtedly know all about Croatia, with a population of less than five million people. Born out of war, they were World Cup bronze medal winners in 1998, and perennial big tournament attendees.
Gaining independence in 1991, Croatia has been to four World Cups and four European Championships. The nation has produced countless talents including stars such as Zvonimir Boban, Davor Šuker, Robert Prosinečki, Darijo Srna, and most recently, Luka Modrić.
Greece, European champions in 2004, produced one of the most stunning Cinderella runs in the history of the tournament. Led by German manager Otto Rehhagel, they pirated their way to the trophy with defensive grit and a vice-like grip that couldn’t be pried off even with the most attractive attacking football.
In many ways, Albania’s own story is strikingly similar, and much like the pirate ship of 2004, Albania will want to spoil yet another established European party.
Serbia, the biggest of the former Yugoslav republics, has had its fair share of success. Of course, this type of mentality has also cost them dearly. Serbia has one of the most harshly punished federations within UEFA because of the conduct of its fans and, sometimes, players. Despite this, since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia reached the quarter-final of Euro 2000, the Round of 16 at World Cup 1998, and the group stage of World Cups 2006 and 2010.
Smaller countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia have also had significant periods of success. Most recently, Bosnia qualified for the World Cup, carried on the wings of patriotic expression through sport, a tradition of footballing pride and a yearning to get there.
Out of the ten complete nations that make up the Balkans – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo – only three failed to qualify for a major tournament, with Montenegro gaining football independence in 2007 and Kosovo just this year.
This year, the honour of qualification has fallen on Albania. The Kuq e Zinjtë (The Red and Blacks) led by their charismatic captain Lorik Cana have finally made their mark and clawed their way to the big dance.
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Lorik Cana is Albania’s best player and inspirational leader
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Europe’s royalty is quick to dismiss the little upstarts but should beware of this team if history is any indication. Balkan countries do well on the big stage, especially when motivated and adequately led. Greece had Zagorakis in ‘04, Croatia had Šuker in ‘98, Bulgaria had Stoichkov in ‘94 and equally Romania had Hagi the same year. Dogged and stubborn, Balkan nations excel with proper coaching, a unified approach and that ever-so-small topping of national excitement.
Bulgarian fans will always remember two come-from-behind goals by Stoichkov and Letchkov against defending world champions Germany in 1994 in a quarter-final for the ages. That same year, a Gheorghe Hagi-led Romania took down South American powerhouse Argentina in the Round of 16 thanks to some quick-thinking improvisation by head coach Anghel Iordănescu.
Who could forget Croatia’s heroics at the 1998 World Cup in France, when the tiny Balkan nation hammered the Germans 3-0, ranked second in the world at the time? Their third place victory against Netherlands capped a fantastic tournament, with Davor Šuker winning the Golden Boot award.
With an unwavering leader like Cana on their side, Albania may be able to mimic the heroics of Balkan nations past and tap into a collective zeitgeist. The country finished second in their group, ahead of Denmark and bitter rivals Serbia.
Many people forget, Albania’s was automatic qualification. The Eagles maintained steady success throughout the campaign, defeating Portugal 1-0 away from home thanks to a goal from 25-year-old Bekim Balaj, drawing with Denmark twice, beating Armenia twice, and of course taking three points off their hated rivals Serbia in the infamous drone match in Belgrade.
The Albanians produced an effective campaign, built on organised and enthusiastic defending and an offence built around shared responsibilities. This is embodied by the fact that the team had six players with a single goal in the qualification cycle.
Remember the drone incident? It was nationalism rearing its ugly head no doubt, but also an indication of senseless bravery. This isn’t your average minnow mindlessly lost in a big pond. Albania and its fans believe they can win – and they’ve proven it.
With Italian manager Gianni De Biasi at the helm, the country has excelled with a defensive brand of football, propelled by self-belief and reckless abandonment. De Biasi, himself written off when he took the job, together with his team, thrives on underestimation and dismissal. He will undoubtedly count on it from his opponents in France, once more.
The country is led by its well-travelled captain, Kosovo-born Lorik Cana. The veteran will lead his nation into its first tournament, in the same year that his native Kosovo gained UEFA and FIFA accreditation. Growing up in Kosovo and then Switzerland, the tournament taking place in the same streets he called home early in his career couldn’t be more perfect.
He returns, bringing with him his brothers-in-arms, unafraid of sizing up the big guys and puffing out their chests. A healthy serving of patriotic zeal within the team is perhaps best embodied by Cana.
Once scouted by Arsenal, Cana’s career has seen him play for major clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille, Galatasaray and Lazio. The experienced and decorated captain has seen it all, and now with Albania’s qualification to a big tournament, he’s ready to put that experience into action.
Albania have been grouped together with France, Switzerland (who have their own fair share of Albanian brethren) and fellow Balkanites, Romania. Interestingly, the Albania-Switzerland match-up will see two brothers go up against each other for the first time at a European Championship.
Granit and Taulant Xhaka chose different nations, offering a unique look at the modern landscape of sporting patriotism. Granit, the higher regarded talent of the two, now at Arsenal, chose Switzerland. His “blue collar” brother Taulant chose Albania. They find themselves at the same tournament, in the same group. Sometimes will can bring you to the same position as pure talent.
Albania’s multi-national squad is something Cana takes pride in, himself born outside of Albania’s borders. Cana told AFP: “The team contains players who are more numerous outside the country than inside it. It is a symbol of national pride.”
Pride is something Albania have in spades. In an era of inflated salaries and glitzy names, cries of laziness and complacency on national team squads across Europe have become commonplace. Not in Albania, however. With De Biasi at the helm, Albania has fought – sometimes literally – for every point during qualification, with no intent of stopping now. The team has found a balance of veteran experience through Cana, Lila, Memushaj and Basha, and younger, more athletic players like Napoli right-back Elseid Hysaj, left-back Arlind Ajeti and central midfielder Xhaka.
An initial look at Albania’s group reveals that they may not be such overwhelming underdogs after all. France, the hosts, are definite group and tournament favourites. Their record against the Albanians most recently was a draw in November 2014 and a loss coming as recently as June 2015.
Switzerland, somewhat of a melting pot of various backgrounds, are off-form. A recent loss to Bosnia, whose own defence is far weaker than Albania’s, will give the first-timers real hope that they can pull off an upset against the Swiss.
The Romanians had an indifferent qualification campaign in a relatively easy group, finishing second behind Northern Ireland. When compared to some of the opposition Albania has gone up against in their own qualification run, they are an opponent the Albanians can beat, especially when the Balkan heat is turned up between the two teams; anything can happen then.
Nobody can say whether the Euros will be a success for Albania, or even what success would be. Many will argue Cana’s men are certainly willing to shed kan for some tournament bal. Perhaps the invitation to Euro 2016 didn’t arrive written in gold leafing to Cana’s men. Perhaps it wasn’t even handed out. But it finds itself in the hands of the Albanians, and if big tournaments are a test of endurance, opportunism and will, maybe, just maybe, the Eagles aren’t such underdogs after all.
By Albinko Hasic. Follow @albinkohasic