Amir Abrashi pumped his fists and screamed at the equally passionate Albanian support congregated behind Romania’s goal. He had only won a corner but also precious time in the country’s wait for its debut victory at a major tournament. Seconds later it arrived, and Albania’s live-wire midfielder dropped to his knees in tears. History in the making.
Their first win at the European Championship secured, Albania must wait until the group phase is over to discover whether they will play any further part as one of the third-placed qualifiers. England are a possible opponent in the last 16 for a team with a goal difference of minus two. “I hope we can stay,” said coach Giovanni De Biasi. “I’m a positive person and I think we deserve it. We’ve shown we can play these games against top teams who have more quality than us.” More quality perhaps, but not more character, pride and, on the evidence of this victory, game intelligence.
Backed by fanatical, fantastic support, Albania eliminated Romania with flashes of creativity and impregnable defending, leaving an indelible mark both with the celebrations that followed Armando Sadiku’s decisive first-half header and the final whistle. De Biasi was awarded Albanian citizenship after the Italian coach delivered their first appearance at an international tournament. He could run for the presidency after this. “We won with heart and with quality,” De Biasi added. “We were able to contain a squad with strength and quality and that had conceded only two goals in the qualifying phase. Technically we decided to wait for Romania and try to attack the spaces. We expected a strong start from them but were ready to counterattack. We defended very well, very solid and we closed the spaces.”
The contrast with Romania coach Anghel Iordanescu and his deflated players was stark. Iordanescu was named Coach of the Century by the Romanian FA after leading the country to the quarter-finals of the 1994 World Cup and the last 16 four years later. His third time may end in bitter recrimination and was asked whether, as coach of the century, he was now responsible for the shame of the century. “You have never done anything constructive in your life,” Iordanescu told his accuser. “If this is the shame of the century let the Romanian press judge me and put the question [of whether he will continue in the job] to the president of the FA.”
Albania’s passage to France had turned De Biasi’s team into a symbol of national unity but was also assisted by the fall-out from the ‘Battle of Belgrade’ when Serbian supporters invaded the pitch after a drone carrying a ‘Greater Albania’ flag flew over the stadium. Uefa punished both teams for the abandoned qualifier before Albania won three points on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Having gone to such lengths to reach their first international tournament, there was deflation at how the Euros had unfolded against Switzerland and France but also a clear determination to make their mark at the third attempt. Occasionally it was made on Romanian ankles as the game opened at a ferocious pace. The Czech referee Pavel Kralovec allowed several late challenges to go unpunished, though he did book Migjen Basha for a flying leap into the shoulder of Ovidiu Hoban with only eight minutes gone. Basha was fortunate to escape a second yellow for clipping Lucian Sanmartean as the Romania substitute weaved his way towards goal in the second half.
As in their opening two defeats, Albania started carelessly with naivety in possession helping Romania to dominate the early exchanges. Their threat faded once Albania found some composure and invention on the ball. A superb move should have resulted in the ball finding the Romanian net when Sadiku, Ermir Lenjani and Amir Abrashi combined down the left before the striker released Andi Lila down the opposite flank with a perfect pass. Lila crossed first time for Lenjani who blazed over from six yards but was spared lasting ignominy by an offside flag.
The flowing move injected belief into the Albanian ranks. Basha miscued another free shot on goal from Ledian Memushaj’s corner before their long-awaited breakthrough arrived moments before half-time. Collecting a throw-in on the right, Memushaj swept a deep cross to the far post where Sadiku rose above a defender and goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu to head over the line. Cue scenes of unbridled joy as the striker sank to his knees before a delirious Albanian bench.
One of Romania’s substitutes, Florin Andone, struck the bar after an incisive one-touch move sent him clear of the Albania defence but that was a rare scare for a defence that worked tirelessly, and bravely, to stifle a limited attacking threat. Arlind Ajeti, outstanding in the heart of Albania’s back-line, caught the mood to perfection. “We have made a historical event,” he said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010