Thanks to the national team qualifying for Euro 2016, enthusiasm for soccer is on the rise in Albania. But a lack of fields and pricey training academies keep kids out of the game. Matteo Tacconi reports from Tirana.
Albania's qualification for Euro 2016 in France has made history: For the first time its national team is taking part in a major international football competition. The remarkable achievement of the team coached by Italian manager Gianni De Biasi has spurred national pride in a country that was isolated from the rest of Balkans, Europe and the world during the communist era and is still a long way from joining the EU.
Football fever has spread across Albanian society, especially among young people, many of whom dream of one day wearing the national team's kit.
"My players have been training with more energy since Albania secured a ticket to France," says Erald Deliallisi, a former professional player who now coaches at Dinamo academy, one of the privately owned soccer schools that have flourished over the past decade.
Deliallisi says that only 10 of the boys he trains have what it takes to turn this sport from a passion into a profession. He adds that Albania still needs to develop its infrastructure in order to bring out young people's talents. The main problem is that there are too few fields for too many kids, and a coach can't focus properly on the more promising ones if he has to deal with dozens of them at the same time.
"A kid can even play on the street, if his talent is God's gift," says Deliallisi. "But if it is to develop, you need fields."
That is a serious matter, especially in Tirana, the overpopulated capital of this tiny Balkan state. "Before the end of communism in 1991, the city had 200,000 residents and 12 football fields. Now, it has around a million people - which is one-third of the country's total population - but fewer fields than before," the coach explains.
Sports go private
The scarcity of football pitches and the boom of private academies are both consequences of the transition to capitalism. The state, which once managed everything, including sports, does not have enough resources to satisfy people's desire to play football. Meanwhile, sports have been undergoing a process of privatization on a large scale, as have many other activities once managed by the state.
Nderim Kaceli, an agent who represents a number of skilled Albanian football players, says academies hold an important role in society as the only places where youngsters can play. But at the same time, he admits, these facilities are also machines for making money.
"Sometimes, a real talent emerges, and the administrators of an academy succeed in selling him to foreign and national clubs," he says, noting that the latter rarely have their own junior teams. "But their main goal is to collect as many fees as possible," Kaceli emphasises as he accompanies DW on a visit to Dinamo, Partizani and KS Ali Demo academies, the three best-known schools in Tirana.
"If you make easy money with fees, you miss the target of turning a budding talent into a real player, a process that requires time and is much more challenging," says Kaceli. As evidence of this, he adds, none of the 23 members of the national team tapped for Euro 2016 is the recognized product of a private academy.
Furthermore, an unusual number of team members grew up or were born abroad, as their families had moved to western Europe for political or economic reasons; the successful story of the national team is far from being 100 percent "Made in Albania." The contribution of the diaspora was decisive.
That comes as little surprise, seeing as many aspiring players cannot afford to pay 20-30 euros a month to enrol in a football academy in a country where the average monthly wage ranges between 300 and 400 euros. Even splitting the rent of a five-a-side pitch with friends for an hour is out of the question for many.
Getting a chance to play
The NGO Friends for Life offers at least some of these kids the chance to play. Its commitment began two years ago at SOS Village, a residential facility for children who for various reasons cannot be raised by their parents. Gjergj Ndoci, who chairs the group, convinced a few Albanian football federation coaches to come twice a week and show the kids a good time.
Recently, he took another step by launching the Social Football Academy, where 100 or so boys are trained. Sessions are held on the small pitch of Tirana's Vasil Shanto School, which has been restored with funds channelled through a public tender for social programs.
"Our main purpose is not to create champions, but to use sports to help these guys socialize, and also to learn discipline and other values that can have a positive impact on their lives," says Ndoci.
Among those who attend the Social Football Academy are guests from the Zibery Hallulli orphanage, where the NGO Terre des Hommes launched an initiative in 2011 that enabled kids to form an official team recognized by the Albanian football federation.
Two members of that team, Emiljo Meidani and Fatjon Kreka, aged 16 and 17 respectively, showed a unique aptitude for football and were recruited last year by Loro Borici academy, the only one of its kind managed by the state.
At Loro Borici, more than a hundred players use just two fields. It may not be a perfect scenario, but that doesn't matter to young players like Meidani and Kreka. The idea that they could soon start a career is enough to make them happy.
The two show promise, and their coaches believe that if they work hard they will be hired by one of the clubs of the Kategoria Superiore, the first Albanian league, once they finish at Loro Borici. But being skilled and motivated may not be enough.
"Often, owners of top Albanian clubs prefer to buy foreign players instead of focusing on young local ones," says Ermal Tahiri, the director of Loro Borici. "They just want to show they have money to spend. Football is marketing and politics, and this jeopardizes our pupils' chances to turn professional."
But Meidani and Kreka's experience here is not just about sports; Loro Borici is both a football academy and a school. Emirieta Deti, one of the teachers, says the academy works on training young people to be not only athletes, but also good citizens, so that they can find a place in society even if their bid to become professional players does not turn out as planned.