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Saturday 13th October 2019 ko 10.00

Albanian Women’s Superliga

FC DAJTI 0

FC KINOSTUDIO 5 (Xhabafti 37 Lulaj 48 73p 83 Xhebrahami 69)

Att 46 at Kompleksi Kombetare, Kamez, Tirana

Free Entry

So where would you hold your stag weekend? I know precisely why we ended up in Tirana, and you can blame my best man Sim. When Robyn and I got engaged in Stockholm Sim and I discussed it over a beer. Originally the wedding was going to be in the summer so we looked at one of the Baltic states, but as soon as Robyn and I discovered that we could get more wedding for the same money if we held it in January we needed somewhere with winter football. I suggested Bratislava for stunning football, great beer and interesting history. Sim’s response changed everything.

“That’s far too sensible” he said “You can do better than that!” 

My immediate response was to say “Well let’s go to Albania then!” Sim grinned in agreement and we soon found ourselves checking flights and hotels, and finding out that the Albanian FA uses the same “Comet” software for its team and fixture administration as the Welsh FA.

What Sim didn’t know that my off-the-cuff remark had a background. That was courtesy of a family holiday in Corfu in the early 80’s. I remember sitting on a beach in Kassiopi looking over the strait over to Albania. This was during the final few years of Enver Hoxha’s isolationist Communist regime, if you don’t remember those days the nearest country now to what Albania was like back then think of the North Korea of today. It was a place with paranoid leadership, and few people visited, or wanted to visit back then. My overriding memory was the annoyance of the place being swimming distance away from where I was sat,  but yet being forbidden to visit.

Thankfully times change, Hoxha died in 1985 and in 1990 Albania became the final European country other than the USSR to reject communism. You could argue its spent the time since trying to catch up with the rest of Europe. To get yourself acquainted with Albania’s past I highly recommend a trip to Bunk’Art 1 near the cable car up to Mount Dajti.

The 4 storey facility was built in the 1970’s to house Ever Hoxha and his government in the event of a nuclear war. It was top secret until the communists fell, and needless to say was never used in anger. To give you an idea of the level of paranoia in the regime, Albania built one bunker space for every 11th head of population but didn’t manage to build a tram or metro system for Tirana! Even the capital’s railway station had no luggage office and the line stopped north of central Tirana. The station closed in 2013 and the station subsequently demolished.

As as emotionally dark as Bunk’Art is there is light relief nearby. I do recommend the cable car trip to the top of Mount Dajti. The views over Tirana are spectacular and on a Stag weekend a revolving bar was a must-visit!

We saw the chaos having no non-road public transport has whenever we travelled within Tirana, even when on our minibus taxi I’d hired to take us from the airport to take us to our hotel near Skanderbeg Square. That proved to be an adventure, I’d got a WhatsApp from the driver when we were all queuing up to convert some Sterling to Lek, a closed currency. When we found our driver he wasn’t happy that there were 9 of us, hardly a surprise, why hire a minibus if there’s only two of you. We marveled at the traffic but got to the Hotel Vila e Arte ahead of schedule.

It allowed me a little time for reflection before the fun started. When Sim and I started to put this weekend together we wanted something that would be more than just wall-to-wall football. The idea was to have football and beer as an anchor it is me, and it is a Stag weekend after all, but we wanted it to be meaningful to those there that weren’t hardened groundhoppers. We knew we were visiting the poorest country in Europe, that at face-value could be taken several ways, most purchases would be way cheaper than in the UK, but us being there and spending money could be a force for good. I found myself remembering my own quote from the end of this year’s Swedish Hop. Everywhere we we went “Making friends wherever we go” was the aim.

In the end there ended up being 10 of us there, including 3 non-hoppers but also including Scots UEFA match delegate Scott Struthers. Scott’s input was invaluable, as our trip neared it became clear that the fixtures were likely to be moved or changed at very little notice. Thankfully Scott had contacts at the Albanian FA, and the previous day Head of Competitions Endi Hyka had very kindly agreed to keep us abreast of any fixture changes, and unbelievably decided to lay on a minibus and driver to ferry us around. We were to pay the driver, each day saving us the effort of getting a new fleet of taxis every time we wanted to head somewhere new.  It soon became clear that without Endi’s wonderful gesture we would not have been able to see anywhere near as much as we did over the weekend.

Friday night was spent with Endi just round the corner from the hotel. He had the idea of taking us for pizza, thankfully there was a traditional Albanian restaurant next door, so once the seating had been rearranged we enjoyed a steady and seemingly never-ending supply of beer, food, beer and some fairly potent firewater! If there was one activity that brought the group together it was that. And once the hotel managed to find a ladder to get Scott back into his room, we slept soundly that night.

You could argue that the final piece of the jigsaw arrived on Saturday morning. I’d just finished breakfast and was heading back to my room to grab my camera. The concierge called me over and informed me our transport had arrived. There was a slightly nervous gentleman who spoke virtually no English. We introduced ourselves as best we could, and once we found everyone and the day’s cameras Zaja Mira led us all to our minibus and drove us through downtown Tirana.

You saw the country in microcosm, everyone is busy, and you can buy just about anything as long you know where it’s on sale. We saw places selling safes, lumps of concrete even odd shoes, but when there’s no money you do what it takes to keep body and soul together. Every evening on the way back to the hotel we’d pass a group of dumpsters with someone trying to find something worthwhile inside. There but for the grace of God go I..

We arrived at the Kompleksi Kombetare Kamez, a training complex owned by the Albanian FA. There’s two pitches with banks of seats between the two, and seats and picnic tables behind the goal. There was a bar so at 9.30 in the morning there we were as a group cracking open the cans as the game kicked off. The locals looked in our direction, Zaja looked too, but shrugged his shoulders and grinned. I think they worked out we were many things, but we were friendly and we were harmless.

The game was a top flight women’s game, Kinostudio is a district in the east of Tirana (we passed through there on our way to Bunk’Art) and you know all about Mount Dajti don’t you? Perhaps it was the beer, or more likely I was just enjoying the whole experience of being somewhere unusual with friends, but the game rather passed me by. Kinostudio won, and won easily and the game finished with a couple of sharp punches from both sides!

The original idea had been to watch two games here, before heading off to watch Mirdita in the third division nearby. But Scott took a call from Endi letting us know that the game had been switched to the Skënder Halili stadium in the west so we ditched the second game, handed the phone to Zaja and made for the minibus.

We clambered aboard, Zaja turned the key and….nothing. The battery was dead, and not even a bump start would resurrect it. Zaja tried to jump start the bus using, would you believe an ambulance but that did little more than melt the jump leads. But what happened next I’m sure we’ll all take to the grave. Zaja dashed out of the complex, and stopped at the first car he could find with the owner with the vehicle. He then bought the car’s battery and with a set of borrowed spanners swapped the batteries around. We were back in business, and no I have no idea how the other bloke got home! We ended up being a little late for the Mirdita game but this wasn’t a weekend to fret upon the minor details.

Zaja raised his hands in victory, we all laughed and the reinvigorated minibus bounced on its way.