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Saturday 18th February 2023 ko 19:00

Kategoria Superiore

PARTIZANI TIRANA 3 (Rrapajy 45 Da Silva 46 Hoti 71)

Gueye sent off 1 (dangerous play- VAR)


Att c 1,500 at Kompleksi Partizani

Entry- Complimentary (tickets in our stand was on sale of 1000 lek – roughly £7.69; opposite was 300 lek)

We’d got back from Vorë with more than enough time for a late lunch. We’d settled in the Tirana suburb of Kinostudio, Ditmar’s home and where the communists used to produce their propaganda films. Since those days the area has seen no little investment, and I suspect the bar we sat in had never known rule by Enver Hoxha.

We’d bought our friends, Endi, Ditmar and Zaja gifts as a way of thanking them for all they did for us back in 2019 on my Stag Weekend. Amongst those was a programme each from Oxford United’s previous home game. I must admit that for our Zaja our driver I did wonder how appropriate that would be, he doesn’t speak English! It was a tough one, he was a hero to the 9 of us, routinely going above and beyond for us, including changing the minibus’s battery on the hoof, and talking us into a ground when security tried their best to keep us out.

Yes, a hero and the great pity was that our mutual ignorance of each other’s language meant that we didn’t realise we were watching his son Ditmar playing for Mirdita at the Skender Halil Stadium until we met Ditmar the next day! Sadly Mirdita folded during the pandemic and Ditmar is now Assistant Coach to Partizani Tirana’s U21 team. But that Oxford United programme did elicit an interesting response from Ditmar, ” You produce that for every home game?” he half asked, half marvelled. There is no tradition of football programmes in Albania, in fact I’ve yet to see a fan shop so far. It does make you think about what is essential for a game doesn’t it?

Back on that Stag Weekend we knew we stood every chance of seeing game at the Stadiumi Selman Stërmasi as the 3 major Tirana clubs, KF, Partizani, and Dinamo all shared there. We had Endi at the Albanian FA to thank for the fact that we watched KF Tirana on the Saturday evening as the game was behind closed doors due to crowd trouble at their previous game. That has now changed with KF playing most games at the Air Albania and Partizan at their new complex, with just Dinamo at the Selman Stërmasi. 

That hints at a truism of Albanian top-flight football, and that is that Pay-Per-View football does take its pick of the fixtures. That can help the foreign groundhopper, as normally there are 3 staggered kick-offs on the Saturday and a lunchtime kick off on the Sunday, with the possibility of a Friday evening game too. The Friday evening game didn’t happen this time, but we did piggyback the Sunday game, and if you’re fortunate you can fit in two or more of the Saturday games. On this Saturday the 3 fixtures were at Laçi, Teuta Durrës, and Partizani, and it would have been easy enough to have watched the Laçi game instead of the Vora FK game that we did. 

Partizani, as the name would suggest were very much the team of the Albanian Army. They were formed in 1946 and named after the Partizans that fought to liberate Albania from Fascist Italy. Unsurprisingly the club did well under the Hoxha regime winning 11 titles in 17 years to 1965. From that point until the fall of communism in 1993 Partizani won the title only another 5 times. But post-communist Albania saw the club struggle, with just one further title in 2018-19. They suffered the ignominy of relegation to the Kategoria e Parë in 2000 and in 2009. Unbelievably they were relegated to the Kategoria e Dytë in 2011 but were promoted after just one season in the third tier. They won promotion back to the top flight the next season. 

It has to be said young Ditmar pulled off a masterstroke with this game. If there were two stadia on my bucket list for this trip it was the Air Albania Stadium and the Kompleksi Partizani. So, Ditmar managing to secure 4 complementary tickets for us was superb, and if nothing else it saved a massive queue at the ticket office. The complex is on the site of former Military Base 4030 in the Turfine suburb in northern Tirana. The Albanian government agreed to a 99-year lease for €1 a year. Curiously, the site is adjacent to the General Directorate of Prisons! Expect all Partizani games save for the derby with KF Tirana to be played here. 

Having Partizani’s U21 coach as guide meant we had a car park space reserved for us, a godsend with public transport sketchy to Tirana’s northern suburbs. Another issue to be considered was that, as yet the approach roads to the complex haven’t been improved, and so the traffic climbing up to the ground choked all the approach roads. But Ditmar had a problem when we reached the final approach to the stadium. A policeman decided to use his warrant card to its absolute limits and decided no, we weren’t allowed to use the road up and he wasn’t about to be convinced otherwise. 

Ever resourceful Ditmar managed to steer the car to the away end, and we found a space to park in a choked car park. So choked in fact that he left his mobile phone number on the dash for the benefit of those we’d blocked in. We picked our way round to the stand, with time rather tight, and those comps were handy, we walked right past that queue for the ticket office. It was clear that our tickets were for Block A, a block for guests, the concourses weren’t completely fitted out and were sharing our block with a bored WAG, and an elderly cheerleader. It must be said that the latter was far more entertaining.

While the ends of the stadium are open, the views beyond them were interesting. There was the view of the prison end behind one goal, with just enough space for a couple of unofficial spectators! The other end saw the tiny faraway lights of the various restaurants on Mount Dajte, we’d visited one on our first evening back in Tirana and could see complex’s lights as a training session took place. 

The game was certainly interesting, Shijak-based KF Erzeni are new to the Kategoria Superiore after finishing as runners up in last season’s Kategoria e Parë. They were 5th in the table, which I mention in case anyone thinks they’re struggling. The fact is that Partizani are in a real scrap for the title with their great rivals KF Tirana and this game showed their mettle, particularly as they played all but the few seconds of the game with 10 men. 

I suspect that if this game hadn’t been televised, and so VAR hadn’t been in action then Maguette Gueye’s heavy challenge a few seconds after kick-off may well have attracted just a yellow card. The issue of course is that when you look at a challenge multiple times, at multiple angles, and in slow motion, things can look worse than they are. Our cheerleader tried to plead his player’s case as he watched the VT but to no avail.

Gueye got his marching orders, and ended up spending more time in the shower than he did on the pitch, and the Erzeni fans celebrated with an enormous firework, which let off a huge “BOOM!” with a smoke ring! It was though as good as it got for the visitors. 

Normally a sending off ruins a game, but it was to Partizani’s credit that they opted to reshuffle to be a defender light, not a forward. What changed everything was Arinaldo Rrapaj’s spectacular free kick on the stroke of half time, followed by Victor Da Silva doubling their lead straight after the break. That was all too much for the Erzini fans who threw a flare onto the pitch hitting Partizani’s Geraud Massanga. It briefly looked serious, but Massanga was able to complete the game. 

Substitute Engjell Hoti scored the winner in the 71st minute which provoked a mass exodus from the away end, and even the “Cheerleader” in Block A finally relaxed. It had been a remarkable game, the best of the four we saw, and one where the scoreline didn’t come close to telling the story of the game. There was to be a final surprise though. 

Waiting outside was Zaja, the hero of the Stag Weekend who had managed to convince the policeman to let him use the same approach road he hadn’t allowed his son. It was lovely to see him again and exchange a few words. He said to me (via Ditmar interpreting),

“It is my great regret that I never learned English”

For the rest of my life I will wonder how I managed my reply,

“It is my great regret that I never learned Albanian!” 

And here’s the thing, I meant every word. Can you imagine the experiences Zaja could teach me, growing up when and where he did. And maybe he could answer the question our two weekends in his country have left us with. That is how can a population brought up to see the outside world as their enemy yet nevertheless welcomed their eccentric visitors with open arms? It was life affirming stuff, and while it was a brief reunion it was in the knowledge that we’ll meet up again next time, Zaja that’s promise. 

We walked round to a completely empty away car park, how did those away fans navigate around our car? Ditmar dropped us off back at the New Bazaar around 10 hours and a lifetime of stories after he’d picked us up. The look on Robyn’s face spoke volumes; she really doesn’t do taciturn. We aimed for the first little cafe serving grilled meats and big beers and toasted a quite wonderful day. And best all there was still more to come too.