Against all odds, Albania have Euro 2024 knockouts in reach

DÜSSELDORF, Germany — An afterthought in one of Euro 2024‘s most fearsome groups, Albania go into their final game of the group stage against Spain on Monday with a sliver of hope of reaching the knockout rounds for the first time in the country’s history.

After narrowly losing to Italy and drawing with Croatia, a win against a Spain side who have already topped the group and are expected to rotate their squad would seal their passage into the last 16. A draw could even be enough if Croatia fail to beat Italy and results in other groups go their way, allowing them to progress as one of the best third-placed teams with two points.

It would represent a remarkable achievement for a nation with a population of around 2.8 million appearing at just their second European Championship. Sandwiched between Cape Verde and Burkina Faso at 66th in the FIFA rankings, only Georgia are ranked lower Albania at the tournament, yet these two teams have provided the most fun in Germany so far.

Drawn alongside Spain, Italy and Croatia, who all feature in the top 10 of FIFA’s rankings, Albania were understandably written off. Once the football started, though, it quickly became apparent that they would have a role to play in Group B.

It took them just 23 seconds to score against Italy in their opener, Nedim Bajrami netting the fastest-ever goal in men’s European Championship history. Italy fought back to win 2-1, but it was a performance that bred belief that the unthinkable was possible.

More than 50,000 Albania supporters attended that match in Dortmund. The roars each time Bajrami or Jasir Asani picked up the ball and attempted to run at their Italian opposition added to the thrill and the sense of anything being achievable.

It was perhaps that support and faith that propelled them to a draw against Croatia in their second game. Croatia had scored twice to cancel out Qazim Laçi‘s opener, but Albania did not wilt and scored a dramatic equaliser in the 95th minute through Klaus Gjasula, who had earlier scored an own goal after coming on as a substitute. It was Albania’s third goal at the finals — only Germany, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland scored more through the first two group games.

It paved the way for wild celebrations in Hamburg, where the game was played, back in the Albanian capital of Tirana and in other German cities where supporters either live or have set up base for the finals. In Düsseldorf, where they will face Spain on Monday, hundreds of fans clad in red-and-black flags performed traditional Albanian dance to a beating drum to celebrate Gjasula’s leveller.

The party would have been even bigger if they had managed to secure their second-ever win at the Euros — their only previous victory was against Romania at Euro 2016 — and it looked possible for a few seconds as Croatia wobbled.

“In the last minutes we had opportunities to win the game and, if there had been more minutes, we could have done more,” Albania coach Sylvinho said.

It means a lot for Albania to be in Germany. Prime minister Edi Rama has even suspended the nation’s parliament for 10 days to enable more than 100 ministers and parliamentarians to attend the fixtures against Italy, Croatia and Spain.

Of the current squad, just eight players were born in Albania. Five were born in Switzerland and others in Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Macedonia, Kosovo and England. It is perhaps the links to Italy that are the strongest, though, in terms of both the makeup of the team and Rama’s early memories of the sport.

Ten of the 26 players in Germany play in Italy — nine of them in Serie A — including star player, the Inter Milan midfielder Kristjan Asllani. One of the dominant languages inside the dressing room is Italian. Other notable names include former Barcelona striker Rey Manaj and Chelsea‘s Slough-born forward Armando Broja, but it is a team that excelled as a block in qualifying for the tournament.

Manager and former Brazil international Sylvinho, assisted by his former Manchester City teammate Pablo Zabaleta, prefers to set the team up in a 4-3-3 formation, playing on the counterattack. They lost just once in eight games to qualify ahead of Czechia and Poland.

When Rama was growing up under the repressive rule of Enver Hoxha in communist Albania, he watched the World Cup in 1982 on what he has called a “dark network” operated by RAI, the Italian state broadcaster. He said, “football was the image of another world for us, the chance to see a moving mirror, a forbidden dream.”

For the new generations, that dream is no longer forbidden. Bajrami’s early goal and Gjasula’s late equaliser are moments of history and inspiration. The current squad may benefit from football schooling across Europe, but the hope is that moments like this will spawn more homegrown talent in the coming years.

There could still be more big moments to come, too. Albania have their work cut out in Düsseldorf against one of the best teams in the tournament so far, but Spain have already secured top spot in Group B and coach Luis de la Fuente is expected to rest players. Midfielder Rodri will miss the game regardless through suspension and other players may be given a break ahead of the knockout rounds.

Albania have shown against Italy and Croatia that they are up for the fight and they will once again have the bulk of the support against Spain at the Düsseldorf Arena.

That they go into the final group game with hope of the knockout rounds is validation for the often-scrutinised decision to expand the finals to 24 teams in 2016. Georgia, the one team ranked lower Albania at the tournament, could also still progress in another refreshing storyline given the domination of western European sides in club and international football.

“I’m so happy that we are still competing to get through the group stage,” Sylvinho said ahead of the Spain match. “Almost no one believed we would be able compete. Some people were thinking that we would concede three or four goals in each match, but here we are, still in the tournament.”