Goalkeeper-turned-striker Panajot Pano became a hero to Albanians with his exploits in the 1960s for FK Partizani and his national team.
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To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Albania chose Panajot Pano as their Golden Player.
Panajot Pano is the star who shone brighter than any other in the Albanian footballing firmament during a career spanning over 15 years. Yet amazingly, the legendary FK Partizani and Albania centre-forward started out as a goalkeeper with SK Tirana's youth team.
Born in Durrës on 7 March 1939, he moved to the Albanian capital at a young age with his family. He was still only 18 when Tirana coach Myslym Alla introduced him to first-team football, soon after his conversion from keeper to scorer of goals by another coach at the club, Xhavit Demneri. In his first top-flight season with Tirana he struck 13 of them.
Pano was called into the army in December 1959 and within months he had been transferred to Partizani, the 'army' team. Here he developed into the league's most complete and powerful forward. Great with the ball at his feet, he was as dangerous on the floor as he was in the air, where his heading ability belied a lack of centimetres.
Indeed, it was not only Albanian defenders who found him impossible to handle. The Hungarian players he encountered in tournaments involving teams from other Eastern bloc countries nicknamed him 'Little Puskás'. The great West German sweeper Willi Schulz said of him: "No one in my country or abroad has passed the ball like Pano did."
As well as plaudits, Pano also picked up prizes. He won four Albanian championships with Partizani – in 1961, 1962, 1964 and 1971. He also collected the Albanian Cup on five occasions and, in 1970, the Balkans Cup. On the international front, he played 25 times for his country and appeared in more than 80 matches in various competitions, including the European Champion Clubs' Cup, the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, the UEFA Cup and assorted friendlies in Europe and Asia.
In one game against Fenerbahçe SK in Istanbul, Pano dribbled through the home defence, past the goalkeeper and then ran the ball into the net himself. Fenerbahçe president Myslym Bey, who was of Albanian origin, said at the time: "Pelé and Eusébio are the world's greatest players, but Pano has played better than they have here in this stadium."
Certainly, Pano was a legend to Albanian fans, as well as the undisputed king of goalscorers by the time he retired in 1975. He subsequently coached Partizani's youth team and the Albania Under-21 team, and acted as assistant coach to Partizani's senior squad. His legacy continued when his son, Ledio Pano, became a star for both Partizani and Albania in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, neither Ledio nor any other Albanian player since has caught the imagination quite like his father did.
This point was underlined by the reaction to Pano's death on 19 January 2010. "Our greatest sporting figure," is how Albania's prime minister, Sali Berisha, described him after his passing in Florida in the United States and his funeral back in his home country drew over 100,000 people on to the streets in a massive show of respect and affection for the man who, ten months earlier on his 70th birthday, had received the Honour of the Nation from president Bamir Topi. That he was the first footballer to collect the prestigious accolade says everything.
Last updated: 19 January 2011