Only the main entrance to the old football stadium in Tirana remains

Anyone taking one of the ridiculously cheap taxis from the airport to the football stadium in central Tirana will see nothing that Albania is competing with Moldova for status as Europe’s poorest country. It is a luxurious football temple, built in the national colors of black and red. The plinth of the stadium is filled with expensive shops. The bars, at the bottom of the south side, serve cocktails and sushi.

With an average net monthly salary of 384 euros, most Albanians have no business there. Priceless. Like a ticket to the final of the Conference League, which Feyenoord and AS Roma will play there on Wednesday. That does not mean they are not happy with the new stadium.

It was different when the construction ad came out. Then followed protests and even demonstrations – critics wanted to keep the old stadium and were above all eager for yet another building in the style of the apartment complexes that have come to define the city in recent years. Now the structure continues as one of the city’s most important landmarks. In addition, it has erased a disgrace. For some time, the national team had to play home matches abroad because no stadium met the requirements of the international football federations UEFA and FIFA.

funny name

The creation of the Italian architect Marco Casamonti is officially called Air Albania Stadium. Albanians rarely call it that. Too ridiculous: this is an airline like an overly flashy nationalist project, with only three planes, borrowed from the parent company Turkish Airlines. Common are Arena Kombëtare (kombetare is national), or ‘Qemal Stafa’, the name of the old stadium and also of a founder of the Albanian Communist Party.

The new stadium already has a history. Not so much in football. The opening match against France on 17 November 2019 was eerily boring. France was far too strong for the Albanian national team. The French simply took the lead and, as if not wanting to ruin the festive moment for the Albanian dignitaries present, they held back, merely emphasizing the powerlessness of the Albanians. It remained 0-2, the position already reached after 30 minutes. The clubs that play their home games in Air Albania – Partizani, Tirana and Dinamo – can not fill it, even though the stadium does not have more than 22,000 seats. The Albanians follow the Italian league with greater interest than their own: The majority of football fans believe after some major bribery scandals that others already know the result before the match is played. It turns out to be deadly for the visitor numbers.

The story of the new stadium lies in politics. Sali Berisha, former prime minister and former president, brought about 5,000 members of his party to the football temple last December. It was a striking image. Due to the average age of the predominantly male party members and their preference for dark tracksuits, the stands seemed to be filled with football coaches. After long speeches, they did what Berisha asked them to do: Vote the party leader a man Berisha was in conflict with.

‘Culture shock in Tirana’

Only the beautiful main entrance to the old stadium remains. John de Wolf, who is coming to Tirana as an assistant coach from Feyenoord, will probably still recognize that entrance, because he has played football in the capital before. September 1991 against Partizani. He and his teammates were deeply impressed by the poverty they saw. Albania was down. Private property had been strictly forbidden for decades, and the dictator had cut all ties abroad before his death in 1985. The only thing left was hunger. In the documentary Culture shock in Tirana (2017) told De Wolf that begging children, women without shoes and other “inhuman conditions” had gripped the team in such a way that decent football was no longer possible. De Wolf: “We are also human. Because of what we saw there … it will not suit you well. We took that with us out on the field. ”

On the way back to Rotterdam, the Feyenoord players decided to set up a fundraiser. Whether fans wanted to provide food and clothing for Partizani players. The campaign was a great success. The huge amount of clothes collected went to Tirana in containers.

Proud of the final

These days, De Wolf will be amazed at the transformation the country has undergone over the past 31 years – and especially in the area around the stadium. The mood will also be new to him. Albania is proud of the final. And the Albanians are delighted that so many people are trying to get there for the first time in the city’s history. An iconic photo is circulating in Albania of the thousands of refugees who boarded a cargo ship in 1991 in hopes of fleeing to Italy. Now next to the picture, in Italian: ‘All to Tirana!’

Of course, there is discussion about the huge prices at which Albanians buy their tickets resell to fans of Feyenoord and AS Roma. Elton Caushi, a historian who runs a small museum about Albania’s communist past, speaks of “one big party.” And four thousand euros for a ticket? “I call it a cautious transfer of income from Italy and the Netherlands to Albania at the initiative of UEFA. There is nothing wrong with that.”

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