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Sunday 19th February 2023 ko 13:00

Kategoria Superiore


KF TIRANA 1 (Nikqi 90+10)

Hasani penalty saved 16 

Att c1,000 at Stadiumi Kamza

Entry 1000 lek (approx.’ £7.69) for a seat in the stand, 500 lek for the terrace

I must admit there was one small worry on our final day in Albania. It was a combination of two quirks, one is that WizzAir don’t let you check in until 48 hours before your flight, and that in any case online check-ins aren’t recognised at Tirana airport. You produce a document that is headed “This is not a boarding pass” which you exchange for a boarding pass at the check-in desk. I’d not seen it before, and I am grateful to our hotel, Vila e Artё for their help in printing out something that served so little purpose!

Ditmar arrived with all the feeling of a friend shortly to be separated, and we made our way to Tirana’s northern suburbs. We’d visited Kompleksi Kombetare, the Albanian National Training Ground, 3 years ago on my Stag Weekend. This time we used it to spend precious time with Ditmar and for Robyn to see a game, there were no end of youth team games on the two pitches. But our reason for being in Kamëz wasn’t here, and it does take a little explanation! 

KS Kastrioti are from the town of Krujë but use the Stadiumi Kamza (yes- the use of the definite article in Albanian again!) as the stadium back home is reckoned to be in too poor a state. There was a side for Kamëz, FC Kamza, who managed to reach the Kategoria Superiore in 2011-12, but were expelled in 2019 after their president Naim Qarri and several players assaulted referee Eldorjan Hamiti for awarding a last minute penalty to Laçi. The club were banned for the rest of the season, relegated to the third tier and when they failed to raise a team for the first game of next season, banned for a further two years. The mixture of Kamza and Kastrioti branding is a little odd but seeing the history is certainly interesting! Incidentally Krujë is in the mountains in the background of many of the photos.

But why is a team from Krujë called Kastrioti? To answer that you have to go back to Albania’s greatest hero, Skanderbeg. Born in 1405, from the Italian noble Kastrioti family he was born Gjergj (George) Kastrioti but spent the first 20 years of his life as a hostage of the Ottoman Court, but escaped to galvanise Albanian national feeling and led a successful rebellion against the Turks in 1444. He was named Skanderbeg by the Turks- “Skander” is Ottoman Turkish for Alexander, a complementary comparison with Alexander the Great, and “Beg” or “Bey” is Lord. So “Lord Alexander (the great)” and his seat of power was Krujë. He managed to successfully defend Krujë against 3 Ottoman sieges ensuring immortality amongst Albanians. So it is rather appropriate that the town’s football club is named after their local hero. 

We were grateful for Ditmar’s skills on arrival at the ground. He advised us to get seats in the stand for our comfort, as just the one side was open and the KF Tirana side was likely to be uncomfortably busy. He also made sure we bought the right tickets from the bloke with his rapidly diminishing sheaf of tickets and rapidly increasing sheaf of banknotes! I did manage to avoid buying a KF Tirana scarf from one of their ultras, it wouldn’t have been the done thing where I was about to sit, and I needed to consider Ditmar’s employers!

The real curiosity of the stadium is how you’re sat between a mosque on your left and a church on your right. I’m sure Enver Hoxha would have hated both in equal measure but it does hint at how religious beliefs are split in modern Albania. That and how the stadium was originally built Maltese-style with just one side for spectators, the uncovered side that wasn’t in use for our game is a comparatively recent addition. I must admit I was hoping to show Robyn a typical Eastern European bowl, Rapid Bucharest would be a good example, but there was much here that we took home as being typically Albanian. And on reflection Robyn has seen something that is very similar to an Eastern European bowl, at the National Stadium in Lisbon which ironically is about as far west in Europe as it gets!

It was easy to see why them TV had picked this game, Kastrioti were bottom of the league and KF Tirana top. With the title looking to be a shoot-out between Partizani and KF Tirana, and we’d seen Partizani win the previous evening so could the league leaders match their rivals? And just to make life a little more interesting we were sat next door to a Partizani coach, Ditmar kept a low profile throughout!

To this neutral it was clear that Kastrioti’s tactic was to spoil, and push their physicality to the limits. It worked for long periods, particularly after Sali Edmit had saved Florent Hasani’s penalty. Incidentally that penalty was given by VAR, how often do you see that technology used at a stadium without floodlights? It all added up to long periods of tedium, as Kastrioti spoiled, and KF Tirana got increasingly frustrated. To give you an idea of just how tedious I’ve included Ditmar’s photo of Robyn and I.

It all exploded with 10 minutes left. Tirana’s Albano Aleksi reacted to Joan Cela’s heavy challenge, there was an alrighty fracas with both players seeing red both figuratively and literally. I do wonder whether Aleksi afterwards will think he took one for the team, because the game opened up just slightly. Tirana piled on the pressure and in the 10th minute of stoppage time there was time for one final corner and there was Dijar Nikqi unmarked to nod home. There wasn’t even enough time to kick-off afterwards, and Ditmar masked his disappointment beautifully.

Immediately the mosque’s minaret called the faithful to prayer, had the imam been watching the game? A couple of fans dashed inside to offer a prayer to either victory or defeat, while outside the contrast between the two sets of fans could not have been more contrasting. The police artfully kept the two factions apart in the stadium’s immediate vicinity.

We had a little time before we needed to be at the airport, “Not a boarding pass” or not. It was Ditmar who came up with the idea of eating at Kamëz rather than pay airport prices. He also had learned one of my maxims when abroad I avoid eating anywhere that could be anywhere, and high in that category is pizzerias, unless I happen to be in Italy! My thinking is try to eat somewhere by and of the country I’m in.  So, with a grin he led the 5 of us into a pizzeria opposite the ground! I laughed, and accepted the fait accompli for what it was, a friends’ joke with the purest of motives. And the pizza was good too! 

Eventually it was time to head say goodbye, 4 minute parking restrictions at the airport don’t allow for much sentiment, just an Albanian taking the mickey out of Robyn’s Bristol accent, “It’s time for you to go ‘ome” but I hope Ditmar understands just how grateful the 4 of us are for all that he did for us, and he is now very aware that Bristol is nearly in Wales! Hopefully one day we’ll able to return the favour. 

I must admit I’d been a little nervous in organising this trip. Could we replicate the goodwill of the Stag Weekend? Would Robyn see Albania as we’d done? And would Endi, Zaja and Ditmar be still as welcoming as before? The answer was thankfully a resounding yes so, this time it’ll be Robyn’s turn to bore everyone with stories from Tirana. And the Albanian adventure will continue!

Dedicated to Endi, Ditmar, and Zaja. Three gentlemen who represent all that’s good about their country.