Despite being a founding member of UEFA, Albania have never qualified for a major tournament. Therefore, nobody expected Albania to qualify from their group, which included Portugal and 1992 winners, Denmark.
Many good players were eligible to play for Albania, including Xherdan Shaqiri, Adnan Januzaj, Valon Behrami and Granit Xhaka, all of whom chose to play for other national teams.
The relative lack of name players makes Albania’s qualification all the more surprising. Let’s take a look at how they did it.
Route to Euro 2016
Runners-up to Portugal in Qualifying Group I, Albania finished above third-placed Denmark and a disorganised Serbia. Albania defeated Portugal in Lisbon during the opening match, while drawing with Denmark both home and away.
During their match with Serbia, an Albanian flag claiming ownership of Kosovo was pulled down from a drone and sparked a fight between players of the two teams. This turned what was a volatile stadium atmosphere into a full-scale pitch invasion and riot.
After the match was abandoned, UEFA originally awarded the abandoned game to Serbia. But the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reversed that decision to give Albania the three points.
Albania qualified a year later after an away win in Armenia. They did not concede a single goal away from home en route to the finals.
Giovanni De Biasi
Italian Giovanni De Biasi’s greatest successes in the dugout came in three spells with Torino, starting with promotion to Serie A in 2006.
De Biasi saved Torino from relegation during the next season. He did the same in 2008, when the club drafted him in as a fire-fighter for the last five matches of the season.
Appointed Albania’s coach in 2011, he led his team to a shock away win against Norway in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
After taking Albania to the Euros for the first time, De Biasi and his players received the Honour of Nation Order, which is the country’s highest civil honour.
As a show of solidarity with his players and their country, the coach became an Albanian citizen in 2015. De Biasi recruited most of his players from those of Albanian/Kosovar heritage in Germany, Switzerland and the former Yugoslavia.
Most important player
Lorik Cana is Albania’s captain, and made history in 2009 when he became the first Albanian player in the Premier League as a Sunderland player.
Many Black Cats fans remember Cana fondly for anchoring the midfield during wins against Liverpool and Arsenal during his only season with them.
Cana currently plays as a centre-back for both Albania and Nantes, after four years with Lazio. He continues to find praise for leadership, tackling, anticipation and general ability to read the game.
19-year-old striker Rey Manaj plays for Internazionale. He has an impressive turn of speed, a booming shot, and is two-footed and strong in the air.
However, Manaj also has a temper, and his outspoken attitude sometimes gets him into trouble with both coaches and officials.
We have Albania at 300/1 to win the tournament, which means that they are unlikely to progress beyond Group A. Yet the fact that their manager and squad were awarded the highest civilian honour in their country shows what a lofty feat qualification is to them.