Albania has, for all of its footballing history, been a minnow, never qualifying for the finals of a major tournament once, or really ever coming close for that matter. Their largest margin of victory was a 5-0 result against Asian also-rans Vietnam in a friendly in 2003. Most of today's best ethnic Albanian footballers are representing other national teams. During their last qualifying campaign for Euro 2012, Albania could only muster wins against bottom side Luxembourg and Belarus, flaming out of qualifying once again.
But something has happened within the space of a year. After years of finishing at or near the bottom of their qualifying groups, the Kuq e Zinjtë find themselves tied for second in their World Cup qualifying group alongside fellow surprise package Iceland. Iceland, to their credit, are slowly building upon a young side that qualified for the 2011 UEFA Under-21 Championship, while their Albanian counterparts finished fourth in their Under-21 qualifying group, 10 points behind the third place team Austria.
There are two main factors behind this sudden rise. First, part of Albania's success in this campaign simply comes from the luck of the draw. Placed in Group E alongside Switzerland, Norway, Slovenia, Cyprus, and Iceland, it is arguably the easiest group within the European bracket. The highest rated team according to FIFA's world rankings as of May 2013 is Norway at 31, with Albania a further 12 places back in 43rd. Slovenia, Iceland, and Cyprus are 54th, 73rd, and 123rd respectively.
The other part stems from the approach taken by manager Gianni De Biasi. The 56-year-old's coaching career is only mildly impressive, with notable stints in Torino, Levante, and Udinese not leading to much success. Before his stint with Albania, De Biasi managed Udinese during the 2009-10 Serie A season before being dismissed in February 2010 with the club hovering around the relegation zone. Twenty months after being sacked by the Zebrette, the Football Association of Albania appointed De Biasi as national team manager in December 2011 on a two-year contract.
One of the first things De Biasi and his staff embarked on was to scour the Albanian diaspora for any hidden talents. After the national team had lost out on the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka to Switzerland, De Biasi was not going to make the same mistakes his predecessors made.
The first player he discovered was Etrit Berisha, who moved from Kosovo to Sweden at 19 to play for Kalmar FF in the Swedish first division. A goalkeeper by trade, De Biasi believes that he has the potential to one day play in Italy, and backed his claim by giving Berisha his debut last May in a 1-0 win against Iran.
Then there is the case of Migjen Basha, one of many Swiss nationals with Albanian ancestry. De Biasi was already familiar with Basha, as the midfielder has spent most of his career in Italy and is currently playing for De Biasi's former club Torino. Through his contacts at the Stadio Olimpico, De Biasi kept tabs on Basha's progress amid rumours he would switch national team allegiances.
Basha made his way through the Swiss youth setup before deciding he was going to apply for Albanian citizenship and declare for the Red and Blacks. Despite the objections of the Swiss football authorities, the 26-year-old received his Albanian citizenship in August 2012, and was subsequently called into the national team the following March.
Centre-back Mërgim Mavraj followed a path similar to Berisha's. Born in Germany to immigrant parents, Mavraj also played for the Under-21s of his country of birth before deciding to play for his ancestral home. The only difference, and a significant one at that, is that he initially refused overtures from Albania twice before he accepted a call-up from De Biasi.
From a tactical standpoint, the Italian is still looking for the ideal formation, having used three different setups in five qualifying matches. Personnel wise, he has used largely the same players in defense, with Mavraj, captain Lorik Cana, Andi Lila, and Armand Dalku comprising the back four in addition to rotating between Samir Ujkani and Berisha in net.
De Biasi is more open to rotation in the midfield and attack, utilising a host of players across the middle, and rotating between several forwards in attack. One commonality, however, is his reliance on a core of Italian-based players: Basha, Cana, Ujkani, and strikers Edgar Çani and Erjon Bogdani, all of whom have played important roles in this current qualifying cycle.
The road to Brazil started out well for Albania, defeating Cyprus 3-1 in the opening match in September. Armando Saldiku opened the scoring only for Vincent Laban to equalise for the Cypriots. Deep in the second half, two goals in four minutes by Çani and Bogdani ensured a win for the Albanians.
However, they were not so lucky against the strongest side in the group, losing 2-0 to Switzerland, including a goal from wayward son Shaqiri, who out of respect for his heritage, refused to celebrate. A penalty converted by Gökhan Inler sealed Albania's fate for the day.
One month later, Albania suffered a second straight defeat at the hands of Iceland, losing 2-1 after giving up a late goal, a result which may come back to haunt them later in the campaign. Nevertheless, the Eagles bounced back in their fourth qualifier four days later, securing a crucial 1-0 win at home to Slovenia on the back of an Odise Roshi header that snuck underneath Samir Handanovič.
Heading into the March round of qualifiers, Albania were tied for third in the group alongside Iceland, both only one point behind Norway, who Albania would face in a difficult away trip on March 22; Iceland would be playing on the same day against Slovenia. With Iceland winning their match shortly after Albania's match kicked off, De Biasi's men needed to match that result if they wanted to stay in the running for a playoff place.
After over an hour gone, the match was still scoreless. Midfielder Ervin Bulku readied himself to take a dangerous free kick just outside the top right hand corner of the penalty area. Instead of whipping in a cross, Bulku sent a low pass along the edge of the box to Hamdi Salihi, who swiped the ball into the top corner, giving Albania the lead in the 67th minute. Despite having a man sent off late, Albania were able to hold onto their advantage and leave Oslo with three very important points, leapfrogging Norway in the standings and going joint-second with Iceland at nine points; both teams are only two points behind group leader Switzerland.
At the halfway point of qualifying Albania are well within a shout of reaching at least the playoffs, and even have an outside chance of topping the group. De Biasi has done a fantastic job in making the squad younger and looking out for talent that may have otherwise slipped through the cracks. In what has become a surprisingly competitive group, Albania have the ability to come out of it all and qualify for their first ever major tournament.
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