During the 80s, no other national team had played as few friendlies as Albania had. This was of course due to the fact that their great leader and dictator Enver Hoxha did not want his fellow countrymen to enjoy any contact whatsoever with the outside world. One felt that they only reluctantly were participating in qualifications for UEFA and FIFA tournaments. They had lost all six of their matches during the qualification for the 1988 European Championships (against Spain, Romania and Austria), and were again expected to provide four rather comfortable points for all of Poland, Sweden and England in qualifying Group 2 of the UEFA zone for Italia’90.
Manager was re-appointed KS 17 Nëntori Tirana boss Shyqyri Rreli, who had also been in charge of affairs from ’82 to ’85, and he would be taking a good few of his squad with him into the national team. They were reigning Albanian champions, and were favourites to retain the title for the 1988/89 season.
Rreli was expected to feature a fairly young team, with lots of players only in their infancy as far as international football went. Therefore, expectations were not high. Rreli would be able to work without a lot of pressure, even if the Tirana crowd was infamous for being very partizan during internationals. Coming to Albania was hardly the easiest of tasks for visiting teams, although Albania would struggle to hang on to a point, let alone win. Only Belgium and Finland had lost in Tirana during the 1980s, both by the margin of 2-0.
Rreli would have to make do without strong forward Shkëlqim Muça, who had retired from international football after the European Championship qualifiers. The 17 Nëntori striker would leave a vacancy behind, and it would be up to newly appointed captain Arbën Minga to replace him. It was also thought they would look to a third striker from the Tirana club: Agustin Kola had a decent goalscoring record for the national team, but was inexplicably left out, albeit Rreli could have been suspected for wanting to give younger players the opportunity. And so, Partizani forward Shehu was drafted into the picture. Between the sticks there would be another newcomer in 17 Nëntori’s Halim Mersini, taking over from Perlat Musta, who had been a mainstay in the side during the 80s. Skënder Hodja had started to emerge as the country’s leading defender, and Rreli would again draw experience from seasoned pro Mirel Josa in a midfield role. Another important player during the qualification for Italia ’90 would be Sulejman Demollari, a more attacking midfielder who had already been representing the national team for a few seasons.
Albania would be expected to play either 5-4-1 or 4-5-1, trying to hit their opponents on the counter. They realized they were nowhere near good enough to try and compete with the other group participants possession wise.
06.08.1988 Albania 0-0 Cuba
Line-up: Mersini (Shkurti h-t) – Zmijani, Hodja, Gega, Jera – Kushta, Josa, Demollari, Millo (Taho h-t) – Minga, Kola
20.09.1988 Romania 3-0 Albania
Line-up: Mersini – Lekbello, Hodja, Taho, Jera – Kepa (Bubeqi 80), Josa, Gega, Kola (Millo h-t) – Shehu (Kushta 38), Minga (c)
19.10.1988 Poland 1-0 Albania
Line-up (5-4-1): Mersini – Alimehmeti, Lekbello, Hodja, Gega, Jera – Minga (c), Josa, Demollari, Millo – Shehu (Stoja 70)
Despite being on the back foot for larger portions of the game, Albania can take pride in the way they battled, and they were never overawed. Perhaps they are not the whipping boys this group had thought beforehand.
05.11.1988 Albania 1-2 Sweden
Line-up (5-4-1): Mersini – Zmijani, Lekbello, Hodja, Gega, Jera – Minga (c), Josa, Demollari, Millo – Shehu
They fight well, the Albanians, and they seem confident from kick-off against a side that had done very well at Wembley and kept England scoreless only a week and a half earlier. Shehu’s goal made sure Albania built momentum, and they could have scored further goals, but for some indecision among the forwards. Sweden make a lucky substitution in bringing forward Holmqvist on in a wide midfield role, and once he scores the equalizer, Albania’s heads seem to drop. Not long after the home side go behind, and from then on they’re unable to claw their way back.
18.01.1989 Albania 1-1 Greece
Line-up: Shkurti (Dosti 76) – Zmijani, Hodja, Lekbello (Stafa h-t), Jera – Demollari, Gega, Josa (Kepa 69), Millo – Shehu (Majaci 65), Minga (c)
08.03.1989 Albania 0-2 England
Line-up (5-4-1): Mersini – Zmijani, Lekbello, Hodja, Gega, Jera – Minga (c), Josa, Demollari, Millo (Majaci 77) – Shehu
England were aggressive right from the start, never let Albania time to settle, and so the home team could never build a rhythm. They had done their home-work on Albania, had England. Shehu tried to get in behind the visiting defence using his pace, but Walker was alert, and Shilton impossible to get past.
26.04.1989 England 5-0 Albania
Line-up (5-3-2): Nallbani – Zmijani, Lekbello, Hodja (c), Gega, Jera – Demollari, Hasanpapa (Noga 32), Millo – Bubeqi, Shehu
Without a couple of their key players, Albania arrived in London hoping to keep the score down. They were realistic about their chances, and giving debut to a 17 year old goalkeeper was a brave (or foolish!) move by manager Rreli. However, the youngster between the sticks performed admirably on such a stage, and it was never his fault that they conceded five. Albania were never disgraced, and had what seemed a perfectly good goal disallowed towards the end of the first half when 2-0 down.
08.10.1989 Sweden 3-1 Albania
Line-up (5-4-1): Mersini – Zmijani, Lekbello (Noga 76), Hodja (c), Taho, Jera – Josa, Gega (Arberi 88), Millo, Demollari – Kushta
An expected defeat, but Albania did take the lead through an early penalty, and they did seem to know what tactics to use in order to get in behind the Swedish defence, as Larsson was often too high up in the pitch. In Kushta, they seemed to have the perfect player to take advantage, as he usually sought this territory. However, the home side gradually took over, and the Albanian midfield was unable to cope with the relentless Swedish possession and eventually pressure. Again, they battled well, but were not quite good enough to bring back a point.
15.11.1989 Albania 1-2 Poland
Line-up (5-3-2): Nallbani – Zmijani, Ilhiadi, Hodja (c), Xhumba, Jera – Demollari, Josa (Arberi 60), Pano (Kepa 74) – Kushta, Bubeqi
For this Albania’s final qualifier, there is no information available. The only thing which is possible to retrieve from any video archive, are the live images from the three goals. Four players who had taken no previous part in the qualification were introduced: Ilhiadi, Xhumba, Pano and substitute Kepa. Another loss ensured Albania left the competition without a single point.
Six defeats from six. That was surely a disappointment to manager Shyqyri Rreli and his staff, even if they had faced some stiff competition. They’d lost by a one goal margin in three of their games, and at home they had given an optimistic account of themselves and had proved tough to beat. Yet, no point in return had been poor.
There had been consistency in team selection, with no less than ten players starting four games or more. Albania had played with five at the back throughout, and their libero, Skënder Hodja, had emerged with credit after his performances. The same could be said for fine midfielder Sulejman Demollari and fine defender Artur Lekbello, who perhaps lacked in consistency, but certainly showed in glimpses that he had ability. Demollari, by the way, had been unfortunate in having a perfectly executed goal at Wembley taken away from him during their 5-0 loss, easily their biggest of the qualification. Eccentric goalkeeper Halim Mersimi played four matches and was top ranked Albanian in our player ratings.
25 players had been in use altogether, though nine of these would only get one appearance. Albania were a little naïve in their approach, and some players did not always seem to have appetite for a battle. Yet, they clearly have some talented footballers in their ranks, so despite the fact that they lost each and every game in the Italia ’90 qualification, all’s not doom and gloom.
Final position: 4 (out of 4)
Total record: 6 0 0 6 3-15 0
Home record: 3 0 0 3 2-6 0
Away record: 3 0 0 3 1-9 0
Number of players used: 25
Number of players including unused substitutes: 30
Ever-presents (540 mins): 3 (Hodja, Jera, Demollari)
Leading goalscorer: Sokol Kushta (2)
Yellow/red cards: 6/0
– game by game
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