Euro 2016: Albania’s big dream comes true — with a little help from PM

It’s not often a prime minister personally takes your call — but then again it’s not often Albania qualifies for one of the world’s top football tournaments.

So you can forgive Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama for momentarily putting aside the business of state affairs to celebrate his country’s qualification for the 2016 European Championship finals in France.

As the country welcomed back its heroes Monday less than 24 hours after a key win against Armenia, Rama was at Tirana airport to greet them, before traveling with the squad on the team bus back to his residence and celebrate how a country of three million had reached its first major international tournament.

Days earlier, Albania’s dreams of reaching the finals were in peril after a 2-0 home defeat by Serbia — its arch rival.

That was the moment Rami intervened in an attempt to lift a set of players carrying the hopes of millions.

“I met them after the Serbia game and they were devastated — it was a very bitter defeat,” Rama told CNN in an exclusive interview.

“I talked to them and said, ‘Look, when you try to reach the top of the mountain you have to deal with stronger winds. Now its time to bring out your character.'”

Despite the mountains and despite the winds, Albania secured a 3-0 win over Armenia, which equaled the team’s highest ever margin of victory, leading to wild celebrations both at home and in Kosovo, whose 1.8 million people are mostly ethnic Albanians.

Fireworks and celebrations lasted long into the night while thousands turned out to greet the team as they landed back in the country. From the airport to the center of Tirana, fans came out to hail their heroes.

Nobody had predicted that Albania would emerge from a group which included the likes of Portugal, Denmark and rival Serbia.

Many of those eligible for the team, such as highly-rated trio Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami and Granit Xhaka, all play for Switzerland despite having Kosovar Albanian heritage.

Xhaka’s brother, Taulant, chose to represent Albania, while the likes of Shkodran Mustafi opted for Germany. And yet, Albania has still prevailed.

“I never dreamed of anything like this,” Lorik Cana, the captain, told CNN. “I phoned my father after the game in Armenia and he was in tears for two hours.

“We are just happy for the people. I know they have difficult problems in the country and for us to make them happy and proud and forget their problems is really special.”

Cana, along with the rest of the players and coaching staff were each given a medal of gratitude by Rama, who confirmed that all those involved in the Albanian squad’s success would be given the country’s highest medal of honor.

“It’s an amazing achievement,” Rama said. “It’s a fantastic boost for our country and society. This team is a team where the star is the team itself — not the individuals.

“They’ve shown that anything is possible when people work and sacrifice together with a strong conviction to pursue a dream.

“I hope Albania reaching the European Championship finals will be followed by Albania being in the European Union,” added Rama, referring to the Balkan state’s long-held ambition to join the European bloc.

Albania has come a long way since the end of the ’80s when — under the totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha — it was one of the world’s most isolated states.

No one was allowed to travel outside the country and thousands were held in secret gulags. Beards were banned, as were the religions they were thought to represent.

As Rama watched the events in Armenia unfold at home on television with one eye on his 17-month-old son, Zaho, another new father was busy directing matters on the field of play.

Cana became a Dad a few weeks ago, which might have given him some practice in dealing with sleep deprivation as he nursed the effects of Sunday’s party.

“We haven’t had any sleep,” confirmed Cana with an infectious laugh. “I’ve had a rich career and played for Paris Saint-Germain in France, Lazio in Italy and in the Premier League too — but the national team is special.

“When you wear that shirt, you have the weight of the nation and all the people upon you and when you achieve something like this it’s one of the most amazing moments.”

Albania, which finished second in its group, came through a difficult qualification, notably in having to play two games against Serbia.

The first in October 2014, which was held in Belgrade, was abandoned after 41 minutes after a drone carrying a flag with the insignia of ‘Greater Albania’ was flown into the stadium.

Albania’s players ran off the field of play in search of a safe haven while being attacked by fans and stewards before refusing to come out again, causing the match to be abandoned.

European football’s governing body UEFA ruled that the game be awarded 3-0 in Serbia’s favor but then deducted the three points from the host nation.

Both football associations were fined $126,410 and Serbia was forced to play its next two home qualifying games behind closed doors.

Last week, the two teams met again, this time in Elbasan where Serbia scored two late goals to win 2-0 and leave Albania needing to win in Armenia to secure qualification.

“It was very difficult after Serbia,” Cana said. “We worked with the coach to build a patriotic and fighting spirit.

“Some of the people were disappointed with the result and perhaps they were scared of losing the dream of qualification — they were a bit afraid.

“But having the support of the country, the institutions and the prime minister was very important.”

While Rama is not embarrassed to reveal he’s more of a basketball than a football fan, the latest chapter in the country’s sporting success has left a lasting impression on him.

“This team has united Albanians,” Rama said. “This is a great chance for the team to show everyone about Albania because football is such a big magnet.

“We never thought this would be possible — it doesn’t happen every day. The whole country is proud of them.”

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