Cold War Classics, no. 12 – Albania v Spain

Background

The Albanian national football team can trace its roots back nine decades to when the Kingdom of Albania entered a side for the Balkan Cup of 1929-31. The team withdrew before the competition started, but the Albanian Football Association officially formed the following year.

The national team would still not play an actual match until 1946, when the new People’s Republic of Albania took on their political-backers, Yugoslavia, in a friendly. Soon after, the country’s competitive debut was made with a wooden-spoon appearance at the 1947 Balkan Cup.

In 1948, following national and political tensions and Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Communist Information Bureau, Albania’s links with their neighbour evaporated, leaving the USSR as main ally. Both Albania and the Soviets were founding members of the Warsaw Pact in 1955, with the Yugoslavs the only socialist state in Europe not to be present.

The Albanian football team followed-suit throughout this time, withholding entry to World Cup qualifiers and only playing friendly matches against other Eastern Block nations – except of course Yugoslavia. When Albania finally began to take part in continental competition, with a place in the Euro 1964 qualifiers, fate would have it that politics would play a role. It would not be the last time.

Drawn against Greece in the preliminary qualifying round, the Greeks chose to withdraw rather than engage with the state from across their northwestern border. While Turkey and North/FYR Macedonia are well-known as Helvetic regional rivals, land disputes with Albania too went back to the time of Albanian independence from the Ottomans in 1912, followed by direct conflict via the Greco-Italian War in WW2 (Italy occupying Albania at the time), and the mass expulsion of Cham Albanians – accused of Nazi collaboration-  from northern Greece following the end of the war.

The two countries were therefore diplomatically estranged, which benefited Albania in the qualifiers as they were free to progress to the next round (and defeated by a Denmark side very much willing to play).

Following the Soviet-Albanian split of 1961 and resulting withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact in 1968, Albania then found themselves relying politically and economically on China, but this relationship would also fall apart in the 1970s (although relations with both Greece and Yugoslavia were at least ‘normalised’). Things were not all well on the football front either, as, after participating in the 1966 World Cup and Euro 68 qualification, Albania’s application for a 1970 World Cup qualifier spot was rejected.

The team returned for the following two campaigns, but soon would go missing from the international scene once more. After having failed to qualify for World Cup ’74, the Albanians played a friendly against China in November 1973. But then, apart from one other random match with Algeria in 1976, the nation would not be represented on the football field again for the rest of the decade.

An internal purge of political suspects had combined with a rapidly decreasing number of external partners to create a paranoid atmosphere within the regime of dictator Enver Hoxha, and the secretive state chose to isolate themselves even further from the world by refusing to put forth representatives at either national or club level for several years.

After rebranding as the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, an application to play in UEFA’s cup competitions once again was made for 1977-78, but delivered a week too late. When a return was eventually realised the following season, there was more political turmoil as Albania’s Vllaznia Shkoder withdrew from the Cup Winners’ Cup after being paired with Dynamo Moscow.

The kits

By the time the Albanian national team re-emerged in 1980 for 1982 World Cup 82s, kit styles had significantly moved on in the footballing universe since their last match, when a mostly plain red jersey (with eagle-crest and slim, black trim on the v-neck and cuff) was worn. A new strip for the new decade was now needed, as the side entered into qualification Group A with Austria, Bulgaria, Finland and West Germany.

At first glance, it seemed like the adidas-lead of most other eastern European countries had been followed, as three stripes adorned both the shorts (of which there were black and red options) and socks, but no trefoils or any other Adidas branding featured on the kit or gear. For the shirts, of which there were several slightly different versions used within the same 11, some featured three black sleeve stripes while most had four (or were they meant to be three red stripes over a black background?), with the crest positioned centrally as in the past.

The round-neck collars were also uniquely hooped with black stripes – one collar stripe on the ‘three-striped sleeve’ jerseys, but three on the ‘four-striped sleeve’ version – with either three of four further hoops on the cuffs. Confused? Good. As regular readers will know, we love these kinds of kit-inconsistencies.

More uniformity would soon be achieved, however, when it seems adidas did actually take over as kit supplier in 1985. If so, the West German company clearly did not prioritise the Albanians (whose gear was probably being produced under license by a third- party factory anyway), as they were initially given a basic, trefoil-less v-neck design. But at least everyone now had the same amount of stripes.

Albania v Spain, 1986

By the following year, in time for Albania’s Euro 88 qualification kick-off against Austria on October 15, the kit had been ‘upgraded’ with adidas’s World Cup Dress shirt template – first seen all the way back in 1978. A trefoil was now finally seen on an Albanian chest, putting the manufacturer beyond doubt, while black was ditched in favour of red as first-preference shorts colour.

Also in their Group A were Romania and Spain, with the latter up next in Tirana. The Spanish, by now in their Le Coq Sportif years, were usually known to use blue shirts and shorts in their qualifying away strips, reserving white for tournament finals. But for some reason, possibly due the black and white TV clash of red v blue, all-white was elected by Spain for the two countries’ first-ever meeting on December 3, 1986.

Despite the home side taking a shock lead, the visitors took control in the second half to win the tie 2-1.

Spain v Albania, 1987

Albania and Spain would next meet in Seville on the last day of qualifying, November 18, 1987, with nothing to play for for the Albanians after losing every game so far. But after the Spaniards’ 3-1 defeat in Bucharest earlier in the year, the home side had to achieve a better result than Romania, who were playing away to Austria at the same time, in order to qualify.

Spain were of course back in their regular home strip for this encounter, meaning Albania had to change for the first time in the group. This is where things get odd as, instead of a straight reversal of their home kit as you might expect, the Albanians (apart from the goalkeeper) reverted to gear that seemed to be left over from the pre-adidas/rip-off adidas era.

Four red and black stripes ran down the sleeves on the white jersey, ending in cuff stripes like the early 80s home kit. A red and black turn-over/v-neck collar replaced the round hooped-style seen before, but a pattern of horizontal stripes kept things consistent.

Differing from the shirt, black-red-black stripes were used over the white background of the shorts, but in a ratio to each other that again gave a clue that this wasn’t really Adidas. In another inconsistency, different socks were worn by some of the Albanian players, as at least one pair featured two hoops with a thicker one in the middle, unlike Adidas-style thinner stripes (possibly only two) used by most.

On the football front, while the Austrians held Romania to a 0-0 draw in Vienna, Spain put five past Albania without response to send them to Euro 88.

***

Having failed to pick up a point in Euro 88 qualifying, Albania repeated this unfortunate feat in their unforgiving World Cup 90 qualifying Group B with Sweden, England and Poland. The two campaigns were particularly disappointing considering that encouraging results like a 2-2 draw away to Poland, a 2-0 win at home to Belgium, and a 0-0 draw away to Greece had been previously achieved during World Cup 86 qualification.

One positive, however, was the adoption of a new kit in 1989 and a template employed by fellow red teams Portugal and Malta. Still with adidas, white was given a prominent role through the collar, stripes, sleeve bars, and trefoil, while the crest was significantly enlarged (interestingly, the Albania goalkeeper appeared to be wearing a borrowed Swedish jersey, with a smaller crest sewn over the Swedish one, for the game against England). The shorts were adidas’s pinstripe design, completing the look as Albania’s classiest to date.

The next opportunity that Albania had to prove themselves was the Euro 92 qualifiers. A tough Group 1, also featuring France, Czechoslovakia, and Spain again, meant that fellow underdogs Iceland would realistically be the only team likely to drop points against the south Balkan side.

But, more important developments were happening in the isolated state, as communism began to crumble around Eastern Europe. Following the year of revolutions in 1989, when many other regimes had fallen, Albanian students started to protest in 1990, culminating with demonstrations in the capital in December.

Changes had in truth been coming for some time, as, after Hoxha’s death in 1985, president Ramiz Alia’s government had tentatively began introducing economic reforms and re-opening relations with western nations.

On December 11, 1990, the government gave in to the protestors’ demands and elections were announced for March the following year. Optimism of a democratic Albania must have been in the air when the the national team flew off a few days later for their next qualifier in Spain on December 19.

Spain v Albania, 1990

Albania had started the campaign back in May, losing 2-0 in Iceland, before a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the French in Tirana in November. Spain’s start had not been the most satisfactory either, as a win over Iceland in October was a followed by 3-2 loss to the Czechoslovaks five weeks later.

The Spanish kit was virtually the same as when the sides last met in 1987, except for the socks. The pleasing red-yellow-red turnovers seen before had been changed to black, but now the flag was placed on either side of the main upper-sock instead.

The highlight of the day was the visitors’ attire though, as this time a straight-reversal of the home kit was at hand (although with a black trefoil). This created a minor problem with the crest, which previously had been stitched-over/incorporated the red background of the jersey. The solution was to create a large red disc in the centre where the already huge badge could remain untouched, creating a great aesthetic.

Much to our glee, the pin-stripe shorts template was also retained for the away strip. Oddly, however, it appears that only two stripes were on the turnovers of the Albanian socks, suggesting that they may have been the same, off-brand types used several years before.

While Albania had won in the fashion stakes, the winds of political change in the country weren’t strong enough to push the team forward to as they succumbed to a crushing 9-0 defeat. At least it wasn’t the worst result in their history, the dubious honour of which belonged to the team of 1950 who had been beaten 12-0 by an emerging Hungarian side.

***

On March 31, 1991, pluralist elections took place in Albania for the first time since the communists seized power in 1944. But suspiciously, Alia’s Party of Labour were successful and held onto their power. Protests resumed against the ruling classes as the status quo was maintained, and workers’ strikes loomed.

Football continued throughout this time in 1991 with further losses incurred at the hands of France and Czechoslovakia, but a competitive victory was at last again picked up via a 1-0 win over Iceland at home in May. The group was to conclude with the return game against the Spanish nearly a year to day after the 9-0 drubbing, as the two sides were set to meet in Tirana on December 18, 1991.

But the match would never take place, partly due to the fact that Spain had not been able to capitalise on their goal tally by suffering losses home and away to France, and, shockingly, a 2-0 defeat away to Iceland. This meant that both teams were out of the running, and with all other games having already been completed there seemed little need to fulfill the fixture.

A more serious reason, however, was the political situation in Albania, as a general strike was called and urban opposition to the government increased to critical level. With the country in a state of disarray, hosting an event such as an football match went out the window.

Amid economic collapse, new elections were called and the previous rulers were routed in March, 1992, by the Democratic Party of Albania – it was the last European country to fall out of communist hands.

With Albania in the state it was in, it is not surprising at all that the team famously arrived in Ireland in May 1992 for a World Cup 94 qualifier without a kit (which you can read more about here or here). Less famous is the fact Albania had already played one qualifier since their elections – away to who else but Spain in March – where a basic, plain white kit worn by the Albanians suggests that a similar scenario had taken place.

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