Geographically positioned on the edge of southern Europe and politically positioned way over the edge of any recognisable sanity, the People’s Republic of Albania under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha was a deeply odd and isolated place. People, information, news or pictures; not much got out of this hermetically sealed nation and despite its semi-regular participation in European club and international competition, Albanian football was no less opaque.
With a lack of prominent teams or recognisable players as points of reference during the communist years, for the typical British football fan at least a single, surreal icon became the defining image of the Albanian game – the beard of Scottish fullback Danny McGrain.
McGrain’s Celtic side had been drawn to play Partizani Tirana in the First Round of the European Cup in 1979 and with nothing to write about the Albanians, Scottish press coverage focused instead on the clash of facial hair cultures. Danny McGrain’s beard was a popular and wholly benign Scottish institution, but in Hoxha’s Albania it represented a national threat – facial hair was at the top of the country’s banned list, just ahead of long hair, flares and rock music.
A great defender, a nice man, an almost unintelligible speaker: Danny McGrain was many things, but this was the first time he had been cast as a symbol of western decadence likely to corrupt Albanian youth. Understandably anxious before travelling, the Celtic man later wrote in his autobiography that he would have shaved off his beard had it been demanded of him. It wasn’t and Danny and his beard both played in Celtic’s 1-0 defeat.
An unusual obsession with the hirsuteness of visiting footballers was to be the least of UEFA’s problems with Albania. Of greater concern was the country’s continual political posturing and downright bloody-mindedness that made them the continent’s problem child for a quarter of a century.
Albania’s first participation in European competition came in 1962 and typically was born more out of spite than sport. Hoxha had fallen out ideologically with the Soviet Union in 1960 and was taking every opportunity to tweak the tail of his former allies. The Soviets and the Albanians had been the only nations to exclude themselves from UEFA club competitions for political reasons, so Albania suddenly ending their boycott would leave the Soviets isolated. Partizani Tirana duly took up the country’s European Cup place.
That first tie came against Swedish champions IFK Norrköping. Partizani gave a decent account of themselves and the home leg was a relative success if you overlooked the barrage of rocks thrown onto the pitch at the end by the Albanian fans. Missile throwing of this nature was an all too common event in European club football back then and spectator misbehaviour, like beards, was a pretty minor issue in the grander scheme of Albanian misdemeanours.
A little light was cast on the Albanian experience when Scottish champions Kilmarnock drew 17 Nëntori Tirana in the first round of the 1965-66 European Cup. The Kilmarnock manager Malcolm McDonald wanted to take 16 players to the away leg, but only 15 visas were granted with no explanation being given for the other omission. 17 Nëntori translated directly as 17th November, the date Tirana was liberated at the end of WWII and a droll journalist deadpanned that 17 Nëntori was the date you finally cleared Albanian border patrol after your plane landed on 15 Nëntori.
Knowing nothing about the opposition, the Killie boss turned to Fleet Street reporter Roger McDonald who claimed some knowledge of the Albanian game. McDonald looked at the list of opposing players Kilmarnock had been sent in advance of the tie and noticed the name of Panajot Pano. That Pano had been the previous season’s Albanian League top scorer was not an issue; that him and several other names on the list were actually Partizani players was more concerning. Centralised player registration records were scant in those days and Kilmarnock tacitly accepted they would playing a team that featured ringers.
Air entry to Albania was only permitted via special charter flights forcing the Kilmarnock party to travel via London and then Rome. No flights were permitted to land after dark and with their take-off delayed in Italy, it was hit or miss whether the Scots would arrive in Tirana before the curfew. They just made it, touching down at dusk amidst the anti-aircraft batteries at Tirana airport.
Some of the Kilmarnock party’s recollections of the experience were more interesting than the scoreless draw the teams played out. When trying to phone home to let their families know they had arrived safely, the Kilmarnock players discovered that telephone lines were only open for one hour in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Meanwhile the club’s physio found the match quite baffling: each time he ran on the pitch to treat one of his injured players he was accompanied by a large number of well-intentioned Albanian doctors in white coats, all eager to assist him.
Kilmarnock narrowly won their home leg and were relieved to do so. Play-offs in neutral locations were needed in the days before the away goals rule was introduced and rumours suggested Albania had proposed any third match be played in the land of their main political allies – China!
European club football then as now was underpinned by a couple of basic tenets that participating nations were expected to adhere to: each country should put forward the requisite number of entrants each season and clubs should play who they are drawn to play. Undemanding in principle, understandable for maintaining the integrity of the competitions and unthreatening for all participating nations. All except Albania of course.
The first issue arose in 1966 when our friends at 17 Nëntori withdrew from the European Cup upon drawing the Norwegian side Vålerenga in the First Round. A theory circulated that Norway remained an unfavoured nation as far as Albania was concerned for their perceived acquiescence to Nazi occupancy in 1940. It was just that though, a theory, one of many that would spring up over the years in the absence of a single word of official explanation for Albanian withdrawals.
While teething troubles with travel and general Albanian oddities were seen as an acceptable price to pay for reaching out to the more extreme corners of the continent, withdrawals like this greatly undermined the European club competition ideal. UEFA did have to take into account a couple of precedents here. Back in 1958 Greek champions Olympiakos had withdrawn from the European Cup rather than face Besiktas of Turkey, while five years later the Greek national team did the same thing when drawn against Albania – the countries were still technically at war – in the qualifying rounds for the 1964 European Nations Cup. As Albania had been a victim itself of political posturing, UEFA took the high road. Vålerenga were given a bye into the next round and 17 Nëntori were quietly told off and asked not to do it again.
UEFA’s policy of gentle diplomacy towards Albania failed then just as it would fail over the next two decades. The following season Dinamo Tirana withdrew in similar circumstances from a First Round European Cup tie versus West German champions Eintracht Brunswick and again it was hard to find the specific motivation, especially as the Albanian national team had played West Germany that same year in a European Nations Cup qualifier. A slightly less patient and slightly more exasperated UEFA banned Dinamo from European competition for a year.
For the 1971-72 season three Albanian teams were initially put forward for European competition for the first time, yet this seemingly positive step towards closer integration disintegrated when Vllaznia Shkodër withdrew from their UEFA Cup tie against Rapid Vienna. It appeared an utterly contrary decision, what with Dinamo Tirana also drawing Austrian opposition in the Cup Winners Cup and this tie going ahead without a hitch. Partizani Tirana had similarly played Wacker Innsbruck the previous season without complications. The now standard year-long ban was duly handed out.
This is Part One of this story and the concluding second part can be read here.