Finally, a Euros for a Whole Continent

23 Qershor 2024, 19:16Society TEMA

Finally, a Euros for a Whole Continent

By Rory Smith/New York Times

Edi Rama’s best friend during the World Cup summer of 1982 just so happened to be the one person he knew who owned a color television. So every evening, Rama would find himself crammed into his kitchen with countless others, desperately hoping that the fuzzy, flickering signal would hold.

Albania was an island back then, under the repressive, conspiracist rule of Enver Hoxha. Foreign travel was banned for all but a select few insiders. Even communication with the outside world, particularly the West, was limited. Rama and his friends could only follow that World Cup through what he has subsequently called a “dark network” operated by RAI, the Italian state broadcaster.

In a recent interview with Italy’s Tuttosport, he said that he still remembers that month warmly. Italy served as Albania’s avatar for the tournament; the two countries, in Rama’s estimation, are “a people divided by the sea, but united in everything else, similar as two drops of water.” When Dino Zoff, the Italian captain, eventually lifted the trophy in Madrid, it felt like victory in Tirana, too. “We saw it in his hands, as if it were also in ours,” Rama said.

Triumph, though, was really something of a bonus. More than anything, what stayed with Rama from that summer, decades before he would become prime minister of Albania, was the sensation that there was life outside of his country. The commentators’ words, he said, “had the indescribable effect on us of not feeling alone in that black hole.”

At the opening of an exhibition earlier this year about the life of Paolo Rossi, one of the great Italian heroes of that tournament, Rama put it even more eloquently. “Soccer was not only the ball and the game for us, it was the image of another world,” he said. “It was the chance to see a moving mirror, a forbidden dream.”

Nedim Bajrami gave Albania the lead after only 23 seconds against Italy, the fastest goal in the history of the Euros.Credit...Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

Forty years on, Rama has not forgotten that power. He has been prime minister since 2013, and he has rarely missed an opportunity to use sport in general — he played basketball in his youth — and soccer in particular as a way to not only win votes but also define a nation.

Last year, he ran a nationwide competition to find architects to design three new stadiums, in the cities of Durres, Vlore and Korce. During a local election campaign, at least part of his platform centered on a deal he had reached with Manchester City that will see City, the Premier League champion, open a soccer school in Durres. In 2022, Tirana hosted the final of the Europa Conference League.

That is in stark contrast to much of the country’s soccer history. In a soccer sense, Albania has always lagged behind even the rest of Eastern Europe. Under Hoxha, the country’s teams frequently refused to take part in international competitions, fearing that players would defect once they were exposed to the West.

In the years after Hoxha was deposed, Albania’s clubs had so little income that match-fixing and corruption became rife. There is also little or no youth development in Albania: Only eight members of the 26-strong squad representing the country at this year’s European Championship were born there. The rest are products of the diaspora, tracing their roots variously to Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Slough, the London satellite town that boasts of being the setting for the original version of “The Office” and the birthplace of the Albanian forward Armando Broja.

To Rama, of course, seeing the team take its place this summer among Europe’s elite will serve as proof that his work is starting to bear fruit. Albania, at last, is starting to come in from the cold. And at the same time, something similar is happening across much of Eastern Europe.

While Albania is an extreme case, what it has endured in the three decades since the fall of Communism has echoes elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc. Youth facilities that had been financed by the state fell into disrepair. Corruption became rampant. Team owners and player agents extracted what little money remained from the professional system. Clubs in the West pounced at the slightest glimmer of talent.



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