"You cannot fly to the moon on a bicycle" – tales from the football frontline

Some things in football never change.

This Sunday I watched KF Tirana play KF Kukësi on matchday 27 of this year’s Albanian Superliga. Albanian football is going through its shiniest of golden patches right now, the national team having just qualified for their first ever major tournament. I was in town to welcome the squad ahead of friendlies against Austria and Luxembourg and to help with a film about the qualifying campaign, which has captured Albanian hearts at home and in the giant diaspora – and not just for the headline-grabbing violence that accompanied their match against Serbia in October 2014.

That night in Belgrade it was a drone that inspired the brawls, riots and stone-throwing that would give Albania a controversial – and crucial – 3-0 walkover. Elsewhere, though, it was simply quality football and coaching pragmatism that handed Gianni De Biasi’s unfancied Shqiponjat (Eagles) wins over Portugal, France and Armenia (twice) and two draws against Daniel Agger-skippered Denmark in a memorable run that helped to secure Euro qualification. 

So peerless has the national team’s success been (its previous high point was a victory in the 1946 Balkan Cup), that when I sat in on a presser at the Albanian FA HQ on Monday questions focused rarely on the games ahead but on the players now bubbling through the squads of big European clubs: Rey Manaj, who has won gametime with Internazionale, and 29-year-old Alban Meha, who has sculpted a late-blooming reputation as a dead ball specialist in Turkey with Konyaspor. De Biasi told the assembled hacks to trust him – hasn’t he earned as much?

Others clucked about De Biasi’s lack of time spent attending Superliga matches – a gripe he knocked back with aplomb, remarking that one doesn’t need to go to ancient Rome to learn Latin. Everyone laughed. 

What he meant was that, despite the national team’s success, Albanian domestic football hasn’t done a great deal.

Yes, defending champions Skenderbeu Korçë made this year’s Europa League, becoming the first domestic side to do so. That is undoubtedly a coup, and a sign that things are on the up. Skenderbeu look set to retain their title this year, having secured 63 points – four more than second-placed Partizani Tirana.

Elsewhere, though, the league is foundering – or at least, going nowhere fast. KF Tirana, a club with a 96-year history and the most continental success of any Albanian club, is going through a particularly rough spot. On Sunday night more fans stood outside the Selman Stërmasi Stadium, chanting and holding banners (that read, among other things, “Distant Mercenaries”) than walked through the turnstiles. 

And there they stayed, for the entire match, making everyone inside the small but accommodating ground feel a bit like we were missing out. And the FOMO didn’t end there. On 80 minutes the KF fans lit up a ring of pink flares around the entire perimeter, making it look as though the stadium was being surrounded by a big, camp, heavy metal gig. When I left the police cordon outside there they still were – cheering and yelling and drinking a lot of Birra Tirana.

Turns out they were protesting against gripes many of us will be familiar with: owners who don’t buy well; money held back from the club; sniping and allegations of corruption. As a Charlton fan these are complaints I can relate to. The quality of play? Probably better than at the Valley, but not by much. Passes were cumbersome and ill-measured. Play was often directionless and Tirana stuck to a tactic of throwing the ball forward to strikers who barely scraped 5'5" and played against centre-halves the size of Ents.

The two best players on the park were Kukësi’s Erick Flores, a creative Brazilian midfielder bagged from Boavista (no not that one – a lower league side in Rio), and Masato Fukui – a Japanese winger who has somehow found his way from Japan’s third tier via Singapore and Montenegro to Albania. Sometimes he looked like he couldn’t give a toss, but pretty much all of Tirana’s best play came through the Japanese.

You could understand his frustration, though. Through balls weren’t followed up, balls that could have been played on the floor went aerial and no-one surged forward with him. Much the same could be said of Kukësi who, like Tirana, couldn’t link midfield and attack very well at all. 

No wonder De Biasi would rather stay at one of his many Italian homes than watch the Superliga. When we met at a nearby coffee shop after the conference, he stressed the need to improve infrastructure in Albania, should the country wish to complete his team’s feat or better it in future. But that isn’t happening. Corruption is rife in the local game and money slated for building projects often goes missing. For now the Eagles will soar in France, but their best players will continue to come from those whose parents fled conflict in the many tragedies to have befallen the Balkans.

“You cannot fly to the moon on a bicycle”, De Biasi told me.

The match finished 1-1, by the way.

– Sean Williams.

Sean Williams is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The New Yorker. You can see more of his work at www.seanwilliamswords.com and www.newyorker.com/contributors/sean-williams