Saturday 19th October 2019 ko 17.00
KF TIRANA 2 (Dunga 4 Cale 45)
KF LAÇI 1 (Nwabuezi 6)
Official Attendance 0 (we counted 97) at Stadiumi Selman Stërmasi
Zaja was clearly enjoying himself as the little minibus picked its way through Tirana’s perpetually jammed streets. I reckon he’d worked that whoever those middle-aged blokes he’d been employed to ferry around were easy to deal with. Just feed them beer and football and they’d enjoy everything that came their way was I suspect his train of thought. But sat as I was midship I wondered….
When Scott Struthers and I were working on the stag weekend’s fixtures the Tirana- Laçi tie was the game we’d long since decided to use as the weekend’s anchor. It was a fairly easy one to make, the Selman Stërmasi is walking distance from our hotel, and with the new Albanian National Stadium still a couple of weeks from opening, there were 3 clubs (Tirana, Partizani and Dinamo) playing there so there was every likelihood we’d get a least one game there. And here’s an irony, when we were visiting Bunk’Art the next day UEFA phoned Scott to carry out the final inspection the next weekend!
The problem was that that while we knew that KF Tirana would be at home on Saturday we’d found 3 different kick-off times! Thankfully when Endi Hyka (whose father played for 17 Nëntori, and Kilmarnock in the late 60’s) at the Albanian FA got in contact he managed to give us the correct time, but gently let us know that the game was being played behind closed doors due to crowd trouble at the Tirana – Partizani derby a couple of weeks earlier! You can imagine the collective gulp but then he said ” Don’t worry we’ll get you in…!”
So as I sat there with the stadium lights coming into view and the ring of police in place rather ironically to keep the fans out I wondered how? One or two things fell into sharp focus, we were a bunch of blokes who didn’t speak a word of Albanian between us and had been drinking beer since 9.30 that morning. We parked up, and headed over to the one open door we could see.
“The Scottish Delegation? Come in, and follow me!” We followed some more glassy-eyed than others, to allocated seats in the directors box. The non-hoppers looked over to me as if to check that this was normal practice on one of my foreign jaunts. I’d have like to have given them some reassurance, but the stunned look on my face must have spoke volumes!
But if there was one team we ought to have seen here it was KF Tirana, and not just due to the branding on the stadium. Selman Stërmasi was instrumental in the development of KT Tirana as both a player and coach. You could argue that until 2017 KF Tirana were the Albanian Arsenal having played their entire existence in their country’s top flight. However they were relegated, and played one season in the first division before promotion back.
The club have gone through a few metamorphoses. They started life in 1927 as SK Tirana, but the rise of communism saw the club change names to variously 17 Nëntori Tirana, Puna Tirana and KS 17 Nëntori. 17 Nëntori or 17th November is the date in 1944 when Tirana was liberated from fascist rule. It is worth commenting that the club changed names to KF Tirana in 1991, it was virtually as soon at the club could, communism only fell in December the previous year. One common theme during our stay was that every one we talked to wanted to forget about Hoxha and communism. In fact the irony of 10 British people being in Albania on the weekend when their application to join the EU was rejected wasn’t lost on many….
It was odd being in a close to empty stadium, even if there were enough people to keep the bar busy, and it wasn’t just our party there I promise! I’ve seen no end of games with low attendances but there was something eerie watching the two sides carry adverts for a breast cancer charity knowing that virtually everyone who’d see it wouldn’t be in the ground.
If you were to place the game in an EFL it was a lot like watching a League 2 match. There was no lack of fitness and occasionally some finesse but these were players who knew precisely what was expected of them and there was little or no deviation from the plans….
But this wasn’t an evening to worry too much about the finer points, just to enjoy another memory-making stop on what had been a quite amazing day. We even managed to catch up with two other British hoppers who’d managed to talk their way in too….
We congregated back at the minibus where Zaja introduced us to his daughter who spoke English. He was worried as since he spoke no English he wouldn’t be able to understand what time to collect us the next day so made she was there to make sure there was no room for misunderstanding. If there was the mark of the man and his kindness that was it.
We spent the evening at a traditional Albanian restaurant, where one of our number Dave, a chef by trade, secured for us a veritable feast before we attempted to walk off the days excesses by going for a walk around Skanderbeg Square which on reflection was a good idea, and a go on a merry-go-round which on reflection probably wasn’t.
Eventually we stumbled back to the hotel, where the night porter was kind enough to serve us yet another beer, at that point I think we’d been drinking for 15 hours straight. It was to be just the one (more) beer; it had been a day we’ll all talk about for years but there was more to come the next day. I swear I slept with a grin on my face!