Flags flew at half mast in Albania earlier this year when Panajot Pano was laid to rest, with prime minister Sali Berisha leading the tributes to "our greatest sporting figure".
The former forward, named as Albania's Golden Player in 2003 as part of UEFA's Golden Jubilee celebrations, died in Florida on 19 January at the age of 70, with his funeral back in his home country bringing over 100,000 people on to the streets. Prime minister and former president Berisha said: "It is a black day for our sport and our nation as we say goodbye to our greatest sporting figure, who touched millions of hearts with his charisma, personality, kindness and spirit."
The president of Albania, Bamir Topi, who had honoured Pano on his 70th birthday, making him the first footballer to receive the Honour of the Nation, added: "I am hurt. I have lost a friend, but most importantly a good man with very good manners; a modest human being. I was proud and lucky not only to have seen him play but to know him personally and to be struck with the force of his personality. He will be missed."
The amazing thing about Albania's 'Little Puskás' was that the Durres-born player initially shone as a goalkeeper before being converted to a forward by a coach at his first club, KF Tirana. He was a prolific striker for the capital side, but found the love of his footballing life after being conscripted into the army in December 1959 and transferred to the army club, KF Partizani. "I am Partizani and always will be," he later said. "
I achieved anything a player would want there. I went there as a nobody and I become a legend."
Sure enough, he was to win four titles and five Albanian Cups with Partizani as well as playing numerous European fixtures and internationals. He certainly made a huge impression as Albania held West Germany to a 0-0 draw in 1968 UEFA European Championship qualifying. The great West Germany defender Willi Schulz said of him: "
No one in my country or abroad has passed the ball like Pano did." Albania's Croatian coach Josip Kuže saw him in that match and said: "Pano is the first name I heard from Albanian football."
Pano himself believed in "simple football", explaining: "The three weapons that made me so magical as a player were love of the game, discipline in training, and talent." Team-mates and opponents, meanwhile, were just honoured to play with him. Former KS Dinamo Tirana player Mehdi Bushati, one of Pano's Albania team-mates, said: "The guy would go past you, score against you, beat you and afterwards you would just say 'thank you'." Albania will remain eternally grateful.
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