Albania’s day in the sun thoroughly deserved

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This was a long time coming. Almost 70 years after playing their first international fixture in Tirana against Yugoslavia in the wake of World War II, Albania finally scored its first goal and a victory in a major tournament.

While the world focused on a forgettable 0-0 draw between Switzerland and France on the final day of Group A play at Euro 2016, the competition’s ultimate footballing minnows rode a late first half goal from Armando Sadiku of FC Zurich to a thrilling, heartwarming 1-0 win over Romania.

The victory, which sparked wild celebrations inside the Stade des Lumieres in Lyon and beyond, was more than academic – it means that Albania, as the third place finisher in its group, against all odds, are still alive at these finals.

What’s more, after how their first two games in France played out, the euphoria of Sunday night was no more than Albania deserved.

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The team’s tournament bow was a tale in perseverance. Albania fought bravely down a goal and a man for 60 minutes against Switzerland, only to see Shkëlzen Gashi of the Colorado Rapids miss a glorious opportunity to tie the game at the death.

Then, to double the pain, Albania held the hosts France in Marseille for 89 minutes – only to watch Antoine Griezmann head in the winner and Dimitri Payet pour salt in the wound deep in stoppage time.

But on Sunday night, footballing justice was done. Albania started hot – and Ermir Lenjani missed an open net from five yards midway through the first interval – and took the lead through a header from Sadiku with the aid of another goalkeeping error from Romania’s Ciprian Tatarusanu.

From there, Albania did what they have done all tournament long: Hold on. In truth, Romania never looked the part. Devoid of creativity and enthusiasm, they were second best on the field – and blown away by the commitment of Albania’s players and support of their fans in hearts and minds.

Said Albania manager Gianni De Biasi after the game, “We got there with heart and quality. We played with our heads and mental strength.”

Albania owes plenty – maybe even more than the honorary citizenship it granted him after qualification – to its hard-nosed Italian coach. De Biasi was never just happy to be involved at this tournament. That’s been clear in the accountability that the intense manager has demanded from his players.

Gashi, arguably the team’s most talented attacking player, hasn’t been seen since blowing his big chance. Taulant Xhaka, meanwhile, hasn’t started since throwing a tantrum after being substituted against Switzerland.

De Biasi has also made a number of big calls. He made the painful call to drop Cana for this final group stage match, thanking him afterwards for his “generous sacrifice” and complimenting him as a “leader and team man.”

Cana, who was introduced as a second half substitute, led his team’s celebrations at full-time. It was, for a number of reasons, a beautiful moment.

Said Cana after the game, “It’s an incredible feeling. The guys in the team have sacrificed so much in these matches. They gave so much of themselves, and I believe that we deserved it and have earned this reward. The desire, the heart that we have… it is something incredible in our team.”

Now, Albania has a real chance to play on. If Ireland and Sweden fail to beat Italy and Belgium, and if Germany runs it up on Northern Ireland – or if the Czechs and Turks draw in Lens – then De Biasi’s side goes through.

Albania had already done enough to leave the competition with heads held high, but even if results around France don’t go their way in the coming days, the tournament debutants will be able to hold onto this game for a lifetime.

Playing well and playing with heart is great, but there is no validation of work well done than winning. As De Biasi said after the game, “Today we got what we could have got in the first two games: you need to score to get results.”

Albania needed this victory, and it’s one that could propel the national team program forward for years to come.

In any case, this kind of moment is what the expanded European Championship field allows us. Tonight, Albania is on cloud nine. And with just four of the six third-place teams going through, the drama will only thicken increase with each passing day this week.

So here’s hoping that De Biasi’s gets another shot in this tournament. More importantly, here’s to celebrating what they’ve already achieved. Albania has made its mark.

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