Albania gave Portugal plenty of food for thought in qualifying and could cause a shock in France
Main player profile: Elseid Hysaj
By Ermal Kuka
This is a tale of a father, a son and a promise; a tale of how one Albanian immigrant’s will helped a talented youngster become the player who carries the enthusiasm of a nation into the European Championship.
It takes a lot to become a top player in football nowadays. It requires talent, will, sacrifice, hard work – a bit of luck as well. But sometimes it also takes the unwavering faith of a loving father who made the most of a half-hearted promise, ensuring his son's footballing talent would not go unnoticed. This is the story of Elseid Hysaj, the Napoli and Albania right-back.
An outstanding 2015-2016 season with the Serie A club made the 22 year-old one of the most exciting prospects in European football, reportedly attracting interest from the likes of Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, and even Barcelona. None of this would have been possible if Hysaj's father Gzim an Albanian immigrant in Italy, had not put blind trust in the capabilities of Elseid, known as Elsi, since he first kicked a football.
Like many Albanians during the 90s, Gzim risked his life by travelling on rubber dinghies and speedboats to work in Italy as an illegal worker, doing all kinds of odd jobs, in order to ensure his family's wellbeing. He made that dangerous trip across the Adriatic Sea several times so that he could send money back to Albania, where little Elsi was raised by his mother. Enlisted in one of the small amateur clubs in his hometown, Shkoder, Hysaj started to show his footballing talent at an early age. His father noticed the spark and a twist of fate helped him ensure that his son’s life would change for the best.
One of the odd jobs the hardworking Albanian immigrant performed regularly during his years in Italy was that of a construction worker. In the summer of 2004, Gzim started work on restoring the house of one Marco Piccioli, an Italian Fifa-registered agent, who had managed several well-known players. "My son is a football player. Can you find him a team?" Gzim asked the agent, who, realising Elseid was only 10 years old at the time, replied jokingly: "He’s young, bring him here after four or five years".
The reply did not dishearten Gzim, who managed to keep in contact with Piccioli. Meanwhile, little Hysaj continued playing for one of the amateur teams in Shkoder – although he was overlooked by the academy scouts of major local side Vllaznia. The right-footed youngster established himself as a good defender in the amateur grassroots leagues, showing an ability to play anywhere across the defence with ease – a characteristic he has preserved to this day.
When Elseid was 14 years old, Gzim decided it was time to remind the agent of the half-joking statement he had made several years previously. He met with Piccioli and asked him if he could arrange trials for his son at Italian academies. The agent gave a positive reply and, since he already had contact with Fiorentina, he arranged a trial for the young Albanian. Hysaj traveled to Italy and impressed in his time for the Italian club, who tried to sign him. But the paperwork proved difficult, due to bureaucratic procedures regarding the children of immigrants and non-EU residents in Italy. So while Fiorentina pondered whether it was worth signing the youngster, Empoli showed the will to enlist him after putting him through his pace.
Hysaj started playing in Empoli’s academy in 2009, and showed straightaway that he was a step ahead of team-mates in the same age group. He was playing regularly for the youth team at 16 and was subsequently called to represent Albania's Under-17s at the Uefa Under-17 Championship in 2010. In November 2011 he made his debut for Empoli's senior team, playing the full 90 minutes in a Coppa Italia match against the club that had decided to pass up on him Fiorentina. A year later, he had become a regular for Empoli under manager Maurizio Sarri and received his first senior call-up for Albania, becoming the third-youngest player to wear the red and black colours when he faced Georgia at the age of 18. Brilliant seasons with Empoli and Albania ensued, making Hysaj a household name both in Italy and his homeland; his form earned him a contract at Napoli in the summer of 2015, guaranteeing him a place in Euro 2016 as the pride of a nation and one of Europe's most sought-after talents.
While most football players spend their money on fancy clothes and cars, one of the first things Hysaj did was ensure that his father’s sacrifice did not go unnoticed. At the beginning of 2014, in Florence's Via della Casella, Bar Elsi opened for clients and Gzim Hysaj now is the general manager of his first business. The bar has become a hotspot for Albanians living in Italy, but also for football lovers who time and again happen to meet with one of the stars of Serie A. "I am making sure his hardworking days are over. He has done and sacrificed more than enough for me and now it’s time I start giving something back", the then 20 years-old Hysaj told me a couple of years ago. So it’s true what they say – the apple does not fall far from the tree.
Tactics and key questions
By Ermal Kuka
When Gianni De Biasi was appointed as manager of the Albanian national team in 2011 his priority was not only rebuilding a team after the departure of several key players, but also to fix a leaking defence. The 2014 World Cup qualifiers worked as a test for the Italian, who found out a lot during that campaign. The end result was the he ruthlessly dropped skilful players who did not work hard enough for the team.
Albania changed from a straight 4-4-2 system into a 4-3-3 setup during the Euro 2016 campaign (well, that is how they line up when the game kicks off at least). The system quickly shifts into a 4-5-1 when Albania do not have possession with the main focus being on disrupting opponents’ play and launching quick counter-attacks.
Apart from the trio of defensive midfielders – Burim Kukeli, Amir Abrashi and Taulant Xhaka – who all played regularly during the campaign, De Biasi has not been afraid to using defenders as wingers. Ermir Lenjani, deployed regularly on the left, is primarily a defender.
Although he has shown to be very capable in attack with his runs from one end of the pitch all the way to the other and is one of the players to watch in this team, his main task during the matches has been providing cover for the Albanian defence. The same can be said of Andi Lila, who started his career as a right-back, before moving in to midfield.
De Biasi demands that all players sacrifice themselves and help out in defence, so it is not uncommon to see even offensive-minded wingers such as Odise Roshi and Shkëlzen Gashi falling deep back to cover space, or recover the ball. And the players have listened, their commitment to harrying opponents relentlessly making this Albania team very difficult to beat.
The team now have a very good back four, comprising Hysaj, Lorik Cana, Mërgim Mavraj and Ansi Agolli, while players such as Arlind Ajeti and Berat Djimsiti providing excellent back-up. Sticking to the plan and waiting for the right moment to attack worked perfectly during the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. They were unbeaten in four key group games away to Portugal, Serbia, Denmark and Armenia. Out of the five goals that were conceded at home, three came in added on time when the players had switched off and were not following the manager’s instructions.
The strong defence contributed heavily towards getting Albania to the Euros but it would be unfair to say that they are unable to provide attacking football.
Kuqezinjtë apply high pressure in order to win the ball back in midfield, and then use a quick passing game centrally or on the wings and have technical players who have now adapted to De Biasi’s style of play.
Ledian Memushaj, Migjen Basha and Ergys Kaçe have attacking quality in abundance while the lone striker Sokol Çikalleshi has proved that he can trouble any defence. De Biasi also likes to vary the team’s set-pieces in order to surprise the opponents, another weapon they will use in France.
Probable starting XI: 4-3-3 Berisha; Hysaj, Cana, Mavraj, Agolli; Abrashi, Xhaka, Memushaj; Roshi, Çikalleshi, Gashi
- Which Albania player will take everyone by surprise at Euro 2016?
This is the moment for Taulant Xhaka to show how good he really is. The do-it-all player has been in his little brother’s shadow all these years, but he is such a good player in his own right (Granit even says he is the better one). Taulant has been outstanding at Basel in the past couple of seasons and would love to come out on top when the two play each other in France.
- Which player could be a disappointment?
Everyone expects so much of Lorik Cana before a tournament played in what he calls his second country – and this could prove to be too big a burden for the captain. He puts so much pressure on himself and takes on so much responsibility, despite not being at the peak of his career. His experience means that he is still one of De Biasi’s key men in the squad and the odd mistake has been overlooked because of that. But the Euros are uncharted territory and an historic event for Albania, so any high-profile mistakes would contribute negatively to how he is remembered when he retires.
- How far do you think your team will go and why?
The team goes to France under no pressure whatsoever and this could work in their favour as they try to reach their objective: to get out of the group. If the team are able to repeat the performances of the qualifying campaign then four points and third place is achievable. The wins against Portugal and France (although this was in a friendly) have meant that Albania fear no one and they will feel that they can nick a point or three against France and Switzerland. The chances of reaching the knockout stage is likely to be decided, however, against what can be described as Albania’s direct rival, Romania, in the last group game.
Secrets behind the players
By Ermal Kuka
- Lorik Cana
Not many Albanian sportsmen can boast the influence that Lorik Cana has in Albania. The "golden boy" of Albanian football has had VIP status following him since his early days in the national team and he has made the most of it by continuously "testing" what awaits him after he hangs up his boots. Cana has shown himself to be an incredible leader for the teams he has represented, on and off the field, and many would suggest that a career in management would be the appropriate continuation. But Cana looks set to become a businessman. After trying his hand at a French wine shop in Tirana, he has now moved into energy drinks. His label in Albania is "Black Eagle" and, naturally, all the commercials revolve around Cana and Albanian national’s success in the last couple of years. If football or business do not work out for Cana, there is always politics. Political leaders in Albania and Kosovo love the influence he has had during the last decade and would be ready to offer him an important place in Albanian politics. Up until now, Cana has hesitated to join one side or the other, while keeping good relations with all. But he is interested in politics and people who know him well believe that sooner or later, he will be involved in decision-making for Albania. Jose Anigo, the ex-sporting director at Olympique Marseille, noticed Cana’s interest in politics since his early 20s. "He was interested in everything regarding Albania and Albanians. I am sure that sooner or later, he will be involved with a political party in his homeland", were his words several months ago.
- Gianni De Biasi
Gianni De Biasi is married to an Albanian – or at least this is what shows up in many results if you Google Italian football websites. The hilarious (and untrue) result is all due to a mistranslation of the manager’s interview, in January 2015, for the website of the Albanian fans' group "Tifozat Kuq e Zi". In it, he stated that he would like to have Albanian citizenship. "I would be very proud. After all, I am married to an Albanian… the red and black national team, it’s been three and something years by now", were his words. Somehow, the conversation ended up mistranslated to the Italian media and when De Biasi received his Albanian citizenship in March 2015, well-known Italian media outlets reported that he fulfilled the criteria because of his marriage to an Albanian woman. This prompted De Biasi to make a public statement explaining the misinterpretation of his words – and the fact that he was very much in love with his Italian wife, Paola. Meanwhile, Albanian fans saw the funny side of this story and gave him an Albanian alter ego. His new name is "Gani Abazi", and it has featured in popular chants during national team games.
- Mërgim Mavraj
Mërgim Mavraj has a very curious love-hate relation with the Albanian FA. He was a hot prospect for the national team since his teenage years and played for Darmstadt in Germany's lower tiers. The German-born defender was quickly provided with the Albanian passport in 2006 in order to wear the red and black kit, but he was so upset that he did not receive a call-up by the then-national team coach Otto Baric that he refused an invitation to represent the Under-21s. A heated exchange of words between the player, his agent and the Albanian FA followed. Mavraj, who had been called up to the German Under-23 squad for two friendly matches, threatened to give up his Albanian citizenship – while the president of the Albanian FA declared that he would request the President of Albania to strip him of the right to hold the country's passport. Somehow the heated argument ended – but Mavraj was forgotten for many years, considered a lost cause by the Albanian FA, who called him up twice more in the subsequent years but received a "no" for an answer. Only when Gianni De Biasi was appointed head coach and went to visit him himself, did the defender decide to play for Albania and take his Albanian passport off the shelf. He later admitted that he had only been keeping that passport as a souvenir.
- Ansi Agolli
Ansi Agolli can boast to have a strong influence not only for the Albanian national team but also in the Azerbaijani Premier League. The much-travelled defender has played for for Qarabag since 2010 and has become a fans' idol there while winning in three league titles, and two domestic cups. His status as well-loved player in Azerbaijan was boosted after Albania's qualification for the European Championship. Agolli will be part of Azerbaijani football's history books, through being the league's first player to play in the competition.
- Emir Lenjani
Players are sometimes caught by surprise when they receive a national team call-up, especially when they did not think they were being followed by the scouting and coaching staff. That was the case for Ermir Lenjani, a winger who was raised in Switzerland and played there for many years before moving to France. During his spell at Winterthur, in the Swiss Challenge League, he was contacted after a training session by the Albania assistant coach, Paolo Tramezzani, who was looking for promising Albanian youngsters all over Europe. Lenjani was very happy to meet with FA scouts, as it was his dream to play for Albani – but he went into his meeting with Tramezzani fully convinced that he was being called up for the Under-21s. He would readily have said yes to that, but his shock was greater when it was explained that he was under consideration for the senior team. He said "yes" instantly – stating that, nevertheless, he was ready to play for the U21 if needed. Tramezzani, trying to keep him calm, had to explain that he was ineligible for the Under-21s – as he was already 22 by that time.
Etrit Berisha (Lazio Rom)
Alban Hoxha (FK Partizani Tirana)
Orges Shehi (KF Skenderbeu Korce)
Arlind Ajeti (Frosinone/ITA)
Naser Aliji (FC Basel)
Mergim Mavraj (1. FC Köln)
Lorik Cana (Nantes)
Elseid Hysaj (SSC Napoli)
Ansi Agolli (Karabach Agdam/AZE)
Frederic Veseli (Lugano)
Ledian Memushaj (Delfino Pescara/ITA)
Ergys Kace (PAOK Saloniki)
Andi Lila (PAS Giannina/GRE)
Migjen Basha (Como/ITA)
Odise Roshi (Rijeka)
Burim Kukeli (FC Zürich)
Ermir Lenjani (Nantes)
Taulant Xhaka (FC Basel)
Amir Abrashi (SC Freiburg)
Bekim Balaj (Rijeka)
Sokol Cikalleshi (Basaksehir/TUR)
Armando Sadiku (Vaduz)
Shkelzen Gashi (Colorado Rapids/USA)