Football arrived in Albania in the early 20th century when the inhabitants of the northern city of Shkoder were surprised to see a strange game played by students at a Christian mission. The sport swiftly grew in popularity in a country then under Ottoman Empire control.
Shkoder's credentials as Albanian football's birthplace were enhanced when in 1913 a side representing the city – and called Independence – played against a team of Austro-Hungarian soldiers. According to reports, the match lasted 45 minutes per half and stayed faithful to the laws of the game. It is also documented that no further official fixture took place until 1921. Then the Vllaznia club of Shkoder, who had been formed in February 1919, tackled opponents established one year later, Agimi, with Vllaznia winning.
After the sport caught on elsewhere, the Football Association of Albania (Federata Shqiptare e Futbollit – FShF) was created on 6 June 1930. The association gained membership of world football governing body FIFA in 1932, and later was a founder member of UEFA in 1954.
Despite the game's growth, the difficult economic situation in the country impeded efforts to forge a sound infrastructure for clubs. Nonetheless, Albania produced a number of talented players who moved abroad to boost their careers. The outstanding examples were Riza Lushta, Loro Boriçi and Naim Kryeziu who plied their trade in Italy for Juventus, SS Lazio and AS Roma, respectively, between 1940 and 1944.
A domestic championship was instituted in April 1930, featuring six teams: KF Skënderbeu, KS Bashkimi Shkodran, KF Teuta, KS Urani Elbasan, SK Vlora and KF Tirana. The first match was a 3-2 victory for Tirana over Bashkimi. Tirana, together with sides such as KF Dinamo Tirana, KF Vllaznia and FK Partizani, largely dominated the Albanian scene until the present day.
The years following the Second World War saw a new political order, with the introduction of a communist system having a positive impact on soccer's development. Football became popularised, its framework being strengthened as the sport was organised and encouraged in state enterprises, schools, villages and towns.
Albania's national-team debut arrived on 22 September 1946 with a 5-0 thrashing of Montenegro. Another memorable occasion was the 1-1 home draw with the Northern Ireland of George Best and Pat Jennings in November 1965, which ended the visitors' FIFA World Cup qualifying hopes. Albania dealt a similar blow to West Germany after a goalless UEFA European Championship qualifier in December 1967.
From 1991 crucial, political and economic changes had a tremendous effect as the nation's centralised financial and political systems fell. The result for footballers was an opportunity to travel. Sulejman Demollari went to FC Dinamo Bucureşti in Romania; Rudi Vata joined Enosis Neon Paralimni FC of Cyprus and then Scotland's Celtic FC. Greece and the Balkan states were other popular destinations.
Such changes in a country's life are always difficult, and UEFA's commitment to assisting smaller associations such as the FShF proved vital. Solidarity payments by European football's governing body enabled the Albanian football authorities to give the local game a firmer footing.
Albania's clubs and national teams continue to strive to deliver at European and world levels. The national side beat neighbours and new continental champions Greece 2-1 in Tirana in September 2004 in what was a 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifier. More recently, a 1-0 victory in Portugal and a 1-1 draw with Denmark raised the possibility of UEFA EURO 2016 qualification. Another notable result was the 1-1 friendly draw away to France in November 2014.
On the club front, Skënderbeu, four-in-a-row Super League – or Kategoria Superiore – winners between 2011 and 2014, became the first Albanian club to reach the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round in 2013/14 and that same summer, together with FK Kukësi, were the first Albanian team to contest the UEFA Europa League play-offs. So there is certainly cause for optimism.
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