Euro 2024: the success of Albania and others makes the euro profitable for all of Europe

Edi Rama's best friend during the summer of the 1982 World Cup was the only person he knew who owned a color television. So, every evening, Rama found himself crammed into his kitchen with countless others, desperately hoping that the fuzzy, flickering signal would hold.

Then Albania was an island, under the repressive and conspiratorial government of Enver Hoxha. Foreign travel was banned for all but a few industry insiders. Communication with the outside world, particularly the West, was also limited. Rama and his friends were only able to follow that World Cup through what he later called a “dark web” run by RAI, the Italian state broadcaster.

In a recent interview with Tuttosport, he said he still remembers that month fondly. Italy was Albania's avatar for the tournament; the two countries, according to Rama, are “a people divided by the sea, but united in everything else, similar as two drops of water”. When Dino Zoff, the Italian captain, finally lifted the trophy in Madrid, it seemed like a victory in Tirana too. “We saw it in his hands, as if it were in ours too,” Rama said.

The triumph, however, was truly an advantage. More than anything, what remained with Rama from that summer, decades before he became prime minister of Albania, was the sense that there was life outside his country. The commentators' words, he said, “had the indescribable effect on us of not feeling alone in that black hole”.

At the opening of an exhibition earlier this year on the life of Paolo Rossi, one of Italy's greatest heroes of that tournament, Rama put it even more eloquently. “For us, football wasn't just the ball and the game, it was the image of another world,” he said. “It was an opportunity to see a moving mirror, a forbidden dream.”

Forty years later, Rama has not forgotten that power. He has been prime minister since 2013 and has rarely missed an opportunity to use sport in general – he played basketball in his youth – and football in particular as a way not only to win votes but also to define a nation.

Last year it launched a national competition to find architects to design three new stadiums, in the cities of Durres, Vlore and Korce. During a local election campaign, at least part of his platform centered on a deal reached with Manchester City that will see Premier League champions City open a football school in Durres. In 2022, Tirana hosted the final of the Europa Conference League.

This stands in stark contrast to much of the country's football history. From a footballing point of view, Albania has always lagged behind even the rest of Eastern Europe. Under Hoxha, the country's teams often refused to take part in international competitions, fearing that players would defect when exposed to the West.

In the years following Hoxha's deposition, Albanian clubs had so little revenue that match fixing and corruption became widespread. There is also little to no youth development in Albania: only eight members of the 26-man squad who will represent the country at this year's European Championships were born there. The rest are products of the diaspora, tracing their roots variously to Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Slough, the satellite town of London that prides itself on being the setting of the original version of “The Office” and the location birthplace of the Albanian striker Armando Broja.

For Rama, of course, seeing the team take its place among Europe's elite this summer will be proof that his work is starting to pay off. Albania is finally starting to recover from the cold. And at the same time, something similar is happening in much of Eastern Europe.

Although Albania is an extreme case, what it had to endure in the three decades following the fall of communism has echoes in other former Soviet bloc countries. State-funded youth facilities fell into disrepair. Corruption became rampant. Team owners and player agents have extracted what little money is left from the professional system. Western clubs pounced at the slightest glimmer of talent.

And for a long time it seemed that the decay was irreversible. Romania has not qualified for a World Cup since 1998. Serbia has not participated in a European Championship since 2000. No Eastern European team has reached the semi-final of a European Championship since Russia did so in 2008. Until as of 2016, only a handful had managed to do so. qualify for the tournament.

This time, however, Eastern Europe boasts 11 of the 24 teams in the field. But more importantly, the tournament's opening week made it clear that players are not simply the lucky beneficiaries of the competition's somewhat ungainly expansion.

Georgia, the lowest-ranked team at the European Championships, came close to beating Turkey in their debut match at a major tournament. Slovenia took a point against Denmark. Serbia came close to doing the same against England. Portugal needed two late and lucky goals to overcome the Czech Republic. Romania, under the Munich sun, shone by winning over Ukraine.

And Albania, after taking the lead against Italy with the fastest goal ever seen in the European Championships, then took a point against Croatia – the country that for years was the exception to Europe's dominance East – and still does, in theory, have a chance of qualifying for the knockout stage.

It must be admitted that this is a remote possibility: Albania should most likely beat Spain on Monday in Düsseldorf. It is also more likely that, when the semi-finals arrive, they will once again be a quintessentially Western affair.

It may be almost inevitable. International football is now defined by club football. The best players, the best coaches and the best ideas migrate to the richest and most powerful leagues, allowing them to produce young players on an industrial scale.

Which other national teams will succeed is determined, to a large extent, by where those leagues choose to invest their money, time and resources. The best players are often found where the top European teams tend to look. This favors countries like Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands – all explored exhaustively, with mountains of data produced on every young player – over places like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, which seem just a little less familiar, just a little 'further away.

The playing field may be sufficiently unbalanced relative to Eastern Europe that the balance cannot truly shift; it may be that economic reality means that Romania will never reach another World Cup quarter-final, or that the Czechs will achieve the golden goal of becoming European champions.

The first week of Euro 2024, however, has suggested not only that the gap can be closed – if only slightly – but that doing so is in the interests of both this tournament and European football as a whole. The European Championship is best when it feels truly representative of the continent, when emissaries from the other world of football arrive from the cold.

FOOLING ME TWICE It's a beloved convention of football reporting that, on the eve of a major tournament, we're encouraged to indulge in a little soothsayer cosplay. Everyone who is anyone, and many who aren't, is asked to provide two predictions: an overall winner and a surprise package.

The first one is quite easy. There are a limited number of real contenders to win a tournament: a maximum of eight for the European Championship and 10 for the World Cup.

The second task is much more complicated. Partly this is because the field is, of course, much broader. But above all because no one knows what the rules are.

How far does a surprise package have to progress for your prediction to be correct? Are you suggesting they could win it? Or reach the semi-finals? Or go out bravely in the round of 16 after frightening one of the favourites? Can the Dutch be a dark horse? Can Croatia? How about Italy?

The answers to these questions are completely personal, but the uncertainty about the parameters has generally meant that, for years, everyone has named one of the two countries: Turkey or, from time to time, Serbia.

This time no one wanted to fall into that trap. Turkey had been anointed outsiders for Euro 2020 and had immediately lost all three group matches. Serbia has never won a knockout match as an independent nation, and last qualified for the European Championship in 2000. Even football journalists cannot ignore such damning evidence.

And so it was with considerable alarm that I watched Turkey beat Georgia in their debut match, in a downpour in Dortmund, scoring two wonderful goals and playing with an open and exciting style. Of course, the opponents were limited, but at the same time a hesitant thought crossed my mind: I think Turkey could be the dark horse of this tournament.

SHOW OF STRENGTH Much was made of the travails of Germany's public transport infrastructure during the first week of the tournament – ​​more on that soon – but equally noteworthy was the highly visible, and vaguely menacing, presence of squads of riot police on the streets of the host cities.

As a rule, this type of policing is now considered by several countries to be counterproductive, a way of fostering an unnecessarily confrontational atmosphere. Much better, according to both academics and various law enforcement agencies, to rely on intelligence – often provided by undercover agents, strategically positioned within fan groups – rather than intimidation.

The German authorities have obviously taken a different approach, canceling all holidays for the month of the tournament and making sure fans know they are constantly monitored. As justification for this decision, they would, no doubt, cite last week's incident in which a man with an ax was hit not far from Hamburg's fan zone. He gives the impression, however, that Germany is a decidedly nervous country.

WOOD AND TREES Perhaps one reason for Germany's apparent logistical difficulty in hosting this tournament is that many of its stadiums were built in forested areas. For more police officers than one would expect, therefore, this means spending much of the month in or near a forest.

Hamburg and Frankfurt, in particular, have unusually bucolic environments, while Cologne could be described as forest-adjacent. The stadiums in Düsseldorf and Berlin are far enough from the centers of their respective cities to have a decidedly sylvan atmosphere. I won't pretend to know why, but my basic theory is that it is an atavistic memory of Varus' defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

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