Beards and Bad Behaviour in the Balkans – Albanian clubs in Europe. Part Two

Geographically positioned on the edge of Europe’s southern shores 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 highly isolated place. People, information, news or pictures; not much got out of this hermetically sealed country and despite their sometime participation in European club and international competition, Albanian football was just as opaque as the rest of the country’s culture. Here is Part Two of our story about the Albanian game during Communist years – you can read the first part here.

Albania

UEFA’s problems with their Balkan refuseniks took on another dimension during the 1970s. Having registered for competition then occasionally, randomly withdrawing once the draws were made, now Albania simply stopped participating at all. Between 1973 and 1978 the increasingly paranoid regime went into a state of almost total isolation with no-one able to predict from year to year if, or when, it might return to the European fold. Rumours would emerge each season that their teams were ready to come back and the Albanian Federation did declare an intention to nominate entrants for the 1977-78 European season. They were true to their word too, but typically their registration arrived a week past the UEFA deadline and they missed out again.

Back Albania finally did come in 1978 with half a decade in the international wilderness doing nothing to soften its political entrenchment. When Vllaznia Shkodër drew Dynamo Moscow in the Cup Winners Cup, a weary UEFA knew what was coming. To Albania the reviled Marxist-Leninist revisionists from the Soviet Union were even more despicable than fascist imperialists from the west and there was no prospect of this tie being played.

Broader Europe-wide irritation with Tirana’s intransigence started to grow significantly by the early 1980s. Assuming Albanian authorities deigned an opponent benign enough to play in the first place, the bizarre rules and regulations and the arduous experience of travelling there was becoming too exasperating for opponents. The beard ruling that so bemused Celtic had actually been in existence since 1970 when Ajax drew 17 Nëntori in the European Cup. The Albanian state travel agency notified the Dutch in advance of their meeting that players would not be allowed to enter the country if their hair exceeded 1.5 inches in length, or if they sported beards. Female members of the travelling party were not permitted to wear mini skirts and hemlines were allowed to be no higher than 2.5 inches above the knee. The furious Ajax president Jaap Van Praag complained to UEFA and demanded the expulsion of the Albanians, although ultimately the tie passed off without undue difficulty or Dutch compromise.

While it was hard enough for players to gain entry to the restrictive country, journalists found it a near impossibility. In an age of developing technology and growing television coverage of the European game, the only reports of Celtic’s match in Tirana came second-hand from Yugoslav journalists monitoring the game from Albanian short wave radio commentary. Travel to the country for those who could get in often involved multiple changes of flight and many hours clearing border control upon arrival. Clubs would take their own food and water for the duration of their stay in a country where living conditions were the poorest in Europe. When Linfield played a European Cup tie there in 1982, club secretary Derek Brooks made sure no players took cameras for fear of being arrested as spies. A report of Linfield’s Albanian trip read like a word-for-word retread of Kilmarnock’s visit 17 years earlier. Nothing had changed in the interim; the country was a Stalinist theme park locked in a time warp.

And still the withdrawals came. 17 Nëntori eliminated Linfield but withdrew immediately from their Second Round tie when Dynamo Kiev were drawn as prospective opponents. The cursory year ban now also came with a fine of 100 Swiss francs (£300). When Vllaznia Shkodër withdrew from playing Hamburg in the opening round of the 1983-84 European Cup – the sixth forfeited game in 17 years – resolve hardened among other UEFA member nations. If Albanian teams wanted to pick and choose who they played, in turn the rest should be allowed to pick and choose not to play the Albanians at all. UEFA started quietly exploring the possibility of a broader Albanian club ban that would also have been convenient numerically and allowed the elimination of the unpopular European Cup Preliminary Round. Ultimately the pariah state gained an ill-deserved stay of execution when English clubs instead were banned in the aftermath of Heysel.

There was one final episode in this chronicle of bad Albanian behaviour, albeit one that took a quite different form from what had gone before. In 1987 Partizani Tirana travelled to Lisbon for a First Round European Cup tie against Benfica. As half-time approached, Partizani goalkeeper and national team captain Perlat Musta retaliated brutally to a Rui Aguas foul by kicking the striker in the stomach. He was sent off and Partizani’s collective discipline went with him as three of his teammates were red carded during the second half for wild fouls and violent abuse of the referee. UEFA responded with uncharacteristic harshness: the second leg was annulled, Partizani were thrown out of Europe for the next four seasons and the offending players received lengthy bans. After a quarter of a century of having to deal with the Albania problem, this was probably a very cathartic punishment to hand out.

While no official information exists that allows us to shine much of a light on the decision-making process in communist Albania during these decades, some patterns emerge that let us draw tentative conclusions. It seems that apart from the few ties pitching them against Soviet teams, undiluted political ideology was not necessarily the main driving force behind their teams’ withdrawals. In not a single season between 1962 and 1985 – the year that Enver Hoxha died – did Albanian clubs take up their full allocation of European places. It was actually rare that there might be two clubs participating in any single season and what was telling was that never, at any stage during this entire period, would two Albanian clubs be playing matches outside the country at the same time.

Foreign travel was banned for most Albanians after 1968 and away trips by football teams were always accompanied by members of the sigurimi – the Albanian secret police. A paranoid fear of bad publicity dictated policy and during the 1980s in particular there were several high-profile incidents of defections and shoplifting by players. Whether ties would be played was dependant upon the logistics of the draw. If one Albanian club was drawn at home in the first leg and the other was drawn away, there would be no issue. But if both were drawn away in the same leg then trying to keep a tight rein on two travelling parties with upwards of 20 people in each would be considered too risky. It was safer and easier to withdraw one of the teams.

An apt metaphor for Albanian football during this era is a Russian doll: the further you delve inside, the more mysteries within mysteries you find with nothing ever quite how it first seems. Just to be semantically correct; it would of course be a Marxist-Leninist revisionist doll, each nested figure painted with a stern and implacable face, a revolutionary glint in its eye and sporting no facial hair whatsoever.

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