Lyon: Albania never doubted their coach, and that faith finally paid off.
The tiny Balkan nation made history by beating Romania 1-0 at the European Championship on Sunday for their first ever win in an international competition.
Albania did so by giving one more committed, all-in team effort that manager Giovanni De Biasi was convinced would eventually prove to be a winning formula.
“We won with heart,” De Biasi said after the match. “We played with our head, with mental strength. This is a very generous team. They try to give as much as they can.”
Now coach and players must wait until the group phase of Euro 2016 finishes on Wednesday to see if three points are enough to qualify for the round of 16 as one of the top four third-place sides.
Even if Albania fail to advance, Sunday’s victory was a momentous feat for a nation that has no footballing tradition and spent nearly half of the last century in international isolation.
While the large contingent of Albanians in the Stade de Lyon relished the victory, celebrations erupted back home. In Tirana and in neighboring Kosovo, where half the squad has its origins, fans took to the streets waving red-and-black national flags. Firecrackers were lit, cars sounded their horns for hours and people danced to folk music.
Albania Prime Minister Edi Rama joined in by writing “Goooooooooool....,” on his Twitter page after Armando Sadiku scored the winner, and the Albanian football federation said on Monday that their players will be given diplomatic passports and financial rewards in recognition of their achievement.
“I was very pleased with our performance, and pleased we could give such a big joy to our fans,” De Biasi said.
Rarely is a team strengthened when it fails to score a single goal in back-to-back losses. But instead of wavering, De Biasi’s bunch found inspiration after resisting with 10 men in a 1-0 loss to Switzerland and holding France scoreless until the 90th minute before falling 2-0.
De Biasi made those potentially demoralising defeats into the foundation of Albania’s biggest sporting moment.
“We managed to get what we didn’t get in the first fist games,” he said. “After the game against France we could have been depressed, but we managed to find the energy to win.”
The first gutsy decision he made was to not put Lorik Cana, with a record 92 caps, back into his starting lineup after he was suspended against France.
Instead, De Biasi stuck with his replacement, 22-year-old Arlind Ajeti. Ajeti came through with a commanding display by anchoring the defence.
“It was a very difficult choice for me,” De Biasi said. “I didn’t want to change much of the team that played against France. I asked Loric to sacrifice.”
Always knowing their limitations, Albania remained focused on defence and sought to do damage on the break, an approach that, until that night, had only produced a deflected cross that hit France’s goalpost.
But this time Sadiku showed the poise needed when he coolly floated a header into Romania’s net just before halftime. Ajeti and the defence did their part, limiting Romania to Florin Adone’s late shot that ratted the bar.
Unlike most foreign coaches, the 60-year-old De Biasi has embraced his adopted home while importing lessons from his football-rich Italy. He swiftly ended squabbles in the national team when he took over five years ago, attracting players back and producing a more professional environment. Married to an Albanian woman, he acquired Albanian nationality last year.