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Friday 17th February 2023 ko 11:30

U17 International Friendly



Marcetic sent off (2nd booking) 63

Att c700 at Arena Kombëtare, Tirana

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It is a matter of fact that 9 men went to Tirana in 2019 to celebrate my Stag Weekend, expecting little more than a couple of matches and more than a few beers. We ended up watching 5 games and enjoyed ourselves so much the “Scottish Delegation” bored my wife Robyn silly with all our stories for months afterwards. But that weekend was so much more than beer and football.

Then, and even more so today there’s a perception of Albania and its people that we had to put aside. No, we did not get to the country by dinghy, the country has no liking for Norman Wisdom any more than in the UK, and every single person we met were wonderfully hospitable. That is remarkable given the country was closed to most visitors for half a century under a dictator who honestly thought that Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong weren’t communist enough and subjected his people to the horrors of the Sigurimi.  So remarkable in fact, the best compliment I can give is that I wanted to introduce Robyn to Albania and vice versa.

Then and now Tirana is a city of contrasts, with investment clearly being made. Our first game was an example of this at a new stadium, but in addition the Pyramid of Tirana is being rebuilt, and even the notorious traffic was nowhere near as bad as before. But the poverty is still there, you do see three distinct economies, one for the rich and tourists, one for the general population, and one for those who struggle. Buying a meal at one of the top restaurants, then having a meal at a street cafe was a real eye opener. That was life in Tirana, and it was clear that elsewhere in the country, away from the opportunities of the capital city, the push to leave the country and seek opportunities elsewhere must be massive.

At the airport on the way home I tried to get rid of my coins as the Lek is still a closed currency. I handed over my change which included a 1 lek coin, worth around 70% of 1 penny. The girl at the till hadn’t ever seen one there, so I kept my little coin as a souvenir. It is always good to be kept grounded after all.

The overall reason that 4 or us were in Tirana was down to 3 gentlemen. Endi from the Albanian FA did so much to make the Stag weekend work smoothly; he was also the chap that called us the “Scottish Delegation!” He also made sure we got into a KF Tirana game behind closed doors at the Selman Stermasi Stadium. Sadly the Stermasi is rarely used at the moment due to pitch issues so KF Tirana are playing most games at the Air Albania, less than 2 km away. 

Then there was Zaja, pronounced Zire, and yes we have been mispronouncing his name for 3 years! He drove us around Tirana for the weekend, and even bought a a new battery for the minibus on the hoof and fitted it for us. Then there was his son Ditmar who helped no end interpreting for us, and giving us Albania from a young man’s perspective. Ditmar and I have been talking ever since, and in the here and now his help was invaluable, our taxi from the airport managed to get lost near Skanderbeg Square!

From then on Ditmar acted as both guide for us, allowing us to show Robyn a lot of what we’d seen previously, but also to add a lot of perspective to what we were seeing. You may remember us watching a team from the Tirana district of Kinostudio in 2019? Well Ditmar lives there, and the name is due to the area being a centre for the production of propaganda films during communist times. 

This game was a complete bonus for us and thanks to Endi for supplying the details. We remembered visiting Bunk’Art 1 in October 2019 and as we were about to enter Enver Hoxha’s 4 storey nuclear bunker, one of our number Scott, a UEFA delegate took a phone call asking him to return a week later to inspect the new Albanian National Stadium, the Arena Kombëtare. The stadium opened a month later.

The stadium, now named the “Air Albania” stadium for reasons of sponsorship is built on the site of the old Qemal Stafa Stadium that served as Albania’s national stadium from 1946 to 2016. The issue the Albanian FA had was that the old stadium wasn’t up to UEFA standards, and since no other Albanian stadium did either, the risk was that no club qualifying for European competition would be able to play in their home country. It did take a bit of wrangling, and the Marco Casamonti design includes a shopping centre and a hotel in the tower. The form of the stands evokes the map of Albania- a rectangular shape from north to south with some curved indentations at the northeast, northwest, southeast and southwestern ends. The exterior is covered with red and black metal panels, the colours of the Albanian flag with the geometric design hinting at the form of traditional Albanian carpets. The stadium’s 22,500 capacity makes it the largest in Albania.

A little of the old Qemal Stafa Stadium does remain. The “Rationalist” styled monumental staircase dating from 1939 was designed by Gherado Bosio who like Marco Casamonti was from Florence, also designed much of “Nënë Tereza” (Mother Teresa) Square that sits in front of the main stand’s facade. The staircase was taken down piece by piece and was replaced in the same position in the new stadium.

But we’re in danger of overexplaining this. The fact of the matter was that Robyn, Adrian, Sim, Ditmar, and I were sat in the Premium 1,500 capacity main stand that also includes a strip of hospitality boxes and another level for TV commentators. It may not have been the highest profile game we’ll ever see but it was a wonderful way to watch a game, even down to the cafe being open. We’re not anti a morning beer! There was an English connection too, Albania midfielder Matteo Dashi is on Crystal Palace’s books, but the game soon became a midfield dominated dirge. Albania should have won it though, particularly after Bosnia’s Stefan Marcetic’s dismissal. He certainly made an impact, coming on at half time, being booked for high challenge in the 52nd meeting and his second booking for a heavy challenge 9 minutes later!

We headed back to Skanderbeg Square to visit Bunk’Art 2, a preserved Hoxha-era nuclear bunker- how can any government codify 36 forms of torture that are acceptable? From there we strolled through the square, taking time to view the great Albanian hero Skanderbeg- he galvanised his country to see off Turkish invaders, to meet Endi for a rather late lunch, near the New Bazaar.

It was wonderful afternoon, not least as Robyn got to try Raki- the local firewater! The coincidence was that it was at the same restaurant we’d eaten at with him 3 years’ earlier. Perhaps he had an eye for the fun we’d all had back in the day like me!

We spent the evening with Ditmar, at a quite exquisite seafood restaurant to the south of the Grand Park of Tirana. The evening showed just how much potential Albania has as tourist destination, but the plate of desserts told a truth we’d already learned.