A little over a year ago, Enis Bardhi was a name on nobody’s lips. The group stage of the Under-21 European Championship had just drawn to a close and, as expected, Macedonia were heading home. In reality, a bottom place finish in Group 3 was beside the point. The fact that they had made it to Poland for the tournament was the real story.
Macedonia topped their qualifying group en route to the tournament, meaning they finished ahead of a France side featuring the likes of Ousmane Dembélé, Thomas Lemar and Corentin Tolisso. The minnows, on the other hand, did so without even a sole star to boast.
As we’ve seen in the past, age-group tournaments are a great platform for the young players involved, in many cases serving as the final step towards becoming a first-team regular at club level. So while household names such as Marco Asensio and Saúl Ñíguez traded hat-tricks like they were Panini stickers for eventual winners Spain, scouts gathered hoping to find a diamond in the rough yet to be plucked by a top European club.
One man who caught the eye was Macedonia’s number seven, Enis Bardhi. The pocket-sized playmaker scored two group stage goals and showed glimpses of class in a midfield alongside former La Masia prospect David Babunski. In hindsight, the makeup of his two tournament goals – a penalty against Serbia and a crisp 25-yard strike into the bottom corner against Portugal – gave a glimpse of what was to come.
As well as technical quality, Bardhi showed a grit to his game. His willingness to work hard defensively and put his foot into tackles belied his slight frame and had earlier contributed to earning a full debut aged 19.
At international level, Bardhi still ponders to this day how it could have worked out differently. The midfielder is an ethnic Albanian born in Skopje, Macedonia, making him eligible to play for either Macedonia or Albania. He has never hidden his preference: “I always wanted to play for Albania since I was 16 or 17. I do not believe there is an Albanian born in Skopje with Albanian parents that would not want to play for Albania.”
Read | Elif Elmas: the Macedonian starlet destined for greatness
Despite his pleas, an offer allegedly never came. Bardhi claims to have even contacted an international selector himself, only to be half-heartedly offered a trial since Albania’s head of scouting, Redi Jupi, had never heard of him. Albanian football representative Jetmir Salihu hit back at the claims, stating that Bardhi was never really interested in playing for Albania, and instead fabricated his story.
During this time, Macedonia were more than interested in selecting the player. Amidst the madness, Bardhi eventually took up their offer.
Shortly after the Under-21 European Championship, Bardhi’s club, Újpest FC in Hungary, accepted a £1.35m offer for his services from newly promoted LaLiga side Levante. Despite finishing the previous season with 13 goals and seven assists from midfield, the competition for his signature was as low as the transfer fee. But that was no slight on Levante. The Valencian side know their limits.
After years of spending above their means, their sporting structure was redeveloped in 2008 with the focus put on financial sustainability. The profits made on the likes of Arouna Koné, Vicente Iborra, Felipe Caicedo and Keylor Navas stand as the best examples of this. By now, Levante fans have grown to trust their club’s scouting network. Nevertheless, the transfer did raise a few eyebrows.
Pre-season gave fans their first look at Bardhi – and it didn’t take long for the inquisitive looks to turn to wide-eyed grins. Friendlies against Cádiz, Villarreal and Elche brought the new man three goals, with all coming from direct free-kicks. Additionally, the accuracy of his in-swinging corners and wide set-pieces afforded Levante a new dimension. Prior whispers of the Macedonian’s dead-ball prowess were proving to be more than just a rumour.
Bardhi’s versatility is another string to his bow. While a number 10 by trade, he is equally adept in a deeper midfield role or on either wing. Manager Juan Muñiz was so impressed by his pre-season form that Bardhi began the campaign in his preferred role behind new striker Ivi.
After a surprise opening day win against Villarreal, Levante found themselves 2-0 down at home to Deportivo with half an hour on the clock. The fans demanded a response. A free-kick won three minutes later was a full 30 yards out. Bardhi put the ball down. Four steps back with those short little legs and one deliberate hop to his left later and the ball was whipped furiously in.
Read | The model, from the academy to the boardroom, that keeps Levante punching well above their weight
A couple of weeks later saw the season’s first derby as Valencia came calling to the Ciutat de Valencia, with Levante buoyed by their impressive start to the season. The visitors took the lead in the first half through Rodrigo but Bardhi would equalise with a well-taken goal. It was still only September, but Levante looked to have a gem on their hands.
Bardhi was being hailed as the bargain of the season by various media outlets in Spain. Moreover, the midfielder’s seamless conversion of pre-season promise into decisive contributions in the biggest games pleased his new fan base, who were living by his every touch, feint and nutmeg. In the next game, that became all the more apparent.
Even though Levante would rout high fliers Real Sociedad, with defender Chema scoring one of the best volleys you’ll ever see, the night will be remembered for the events leading to the final goal of the game.
Levante won a free-kick in the final minute of the game, with their home fans already in party mood. Ivi picked up the ball, placed it down, and began counting out his run-up. It was 2-0 at this stage, and they all wanted in on the act.
Regular kick taker Bardhi stood to the side bewildered, looking like the last schoolboy in the playground to be picked for the team. As he turned to his manager on the touchline, thousands of voices from the stands chanted in unison: “Bardhi. Bardhi. Bardhi.” Ivi looked confused now too.
Almost in a temper, he picked up the ball and handed it to Bardhi. The crowd cheered the decision like a goal had just been scored. A few seconds later, it was. The stadium erupted, marking one of the most memorable moments of the season.
Everything seemed rosy at that time but honeymoon periods only last so long. Levante’s struggles over the next few months were more of a resort to type. With Muñiz under considerable pressure as Levante slid down the table, Bardhi lost his place in the side. According to Radio Marca, the explanation was clear from the manager: he only offered free-kicks.
Read | Yeray Álvarez: the Athletic Club defender who’s twice beaten cancer
Muñiz was given an opportunity to turn things around, bringing in six players in the January transfer window. Having recovered from an injury suffered in late-December, Bardhi now found himself even further down the pecking order. He didn’t make another league start until Muñiz was relieved of his duties in March.
Levante were hanging onto the edge of the relegation zone in 17th when the decision came. Reserve team manager Paco López was promoted to the hot seat and had a mighty job on his hands, starting brilliantly with wins over Getafe, Eibar and Las Palmas.
Bardhi returned to the team for the game against Athletic Club – his first start since December – and did so in memorable fashion. It was a game of astonishing goals at San Mames, with Raul Garcia giving Athletic the lead with a first-time piledriver from 30 yards.
Then, as the clock struck 42 minutes, the ball crossed the line by way of a wonderful Bardhi free-kick from wide on the left wing, a position that looked more suited to a cross than to a shot. The Macedonian ran to the sideline, embracing his teammates and new manager. The weight of frustration appeared to be lifted off his shoulders in an instant.
From the kick-off that followed, Athletic went long and immediately lost possession. Levante quickly made headway and won another free-kick in an almost identical position to a minute earlier. Bardhi stood over the dead ball. Surely he wouldn’t shoot again. Kepa, Athletic’s goalkeeper, looked relaxed. So when the ball hit the back of the net again as the clock struck 44 minutes, the crowd was stunned. It was like watching a replay, except this strike was even better than the first. Thanks to the Macedonian, Levante left with a 3-1 away win.
Bardhi doesn’t hold a grudge against former manager Muñiz, though, who tapered his minutes on the pitch significantly towards the end of his reign: “It was the coach’s decision, which I respect. When the team is not performing, changes to the team are normal. But with Paco López, I feel free.”
Read | Is the balance of power slowly shifting in Seville?
Barcelona came to town in the penultimate game of the season, two games away from a historic unbeaten season. Real Sociedad were identified by the Catalans as the biggest threat to their quest, meaning Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique were left out for the trip to Valencia. It was a costly decision.
Unbelievably, López’s side raced to a 5-1 lead before the hour mark, with Emmanuel Boateng grabbing a hat-trick and Bardhi snaring two. A king pair of gorgeous first-time side-foot finishes into the far top corner marked this as his coming before the masses. Despite Barça made Las Granotas sweat late on, the game finished 5-4.
Levante closed the season with eight wins from their final 11 games, and Paco López was deservedly given a new contract for the 2018/19 season for his heroics in the dugout. “It’s important that Paco López stays. He makes us better; both me and my teammates. We have to try to stay in the league and not suffer so much next season,” said Bardhi.
That is, of course, if he is still there. Interest from Inter and Paris Saint-Germain has been touted throughout the summer, and while Bardhi has previously expressed his desire to be a decisive player for a top European club in the future, in the short term, he simply wants to build on last season: “Next season, I want to play more at Levante. I’m training to make a better season than the last. I don’t think of goals or assists. The objective is joint.”
At the end of a 26-game debut season in LaLiga full of ups and downs, Bardhi finished with nine goals, five of them free-kIcks. It’s a record only bettered by Messi, who tied the all-time LaLiga record of six in a season.
In the end, football shows us there are many roads to the top. We’ve seen countless cases of child prodigies who promised plenty but ultimately amounted to little. Similarly, we’ve seen the late bloomers who never quite made it in their pomp but came good in the latter years of their career. Then there are the players who slip through the net altogether.
What matters most is that you make it in the end. So while Enis Bardhi doesn’t have the world talking about him just yet, if he continues in the same vein, it may not be long until he does.
By Cameron Strutt @CameronStrutt95