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)