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Proud Skënderbeu realise historic dream

"The whole country, not just the city of Korce is proud of what Skënderbeu have achieved," forward Hamdi Salihi beamed after the Albanian side made history.

Blendi Shkëmbi began his career at group stage debutants Skënderbeu in 1997
Blendi Shkëmbi began his career at group stage debutants Skënderbeu in 1997 ©AFP/Getty Images

"The whole country, not just the city of Korce is proud of what Skënderbeu have achieved," Hamdi Salihi declared after the UEFA Europa League debutants made history on matchday one.

Despite losing their UEFA Champions League play-off tie 6-2 on aggregate against Dinamo Zagreb in August, the White and Reds became the first Albanian side to feature in the group stage of a major UEFA competition.

"A few months ago this was just a distant dream," said Skënderbeu forward Salihi, after his side opened their historic Group H campaign with a 1-0 home loss to Beşiktaş. "We felt like we couldn't dare to try and make our dream a reality, but we did it."

Team-mate Bledi Shkëmbi believes their European feat will inspire their domestic rivals: "We have to stay humble. I hope that other Albanian sides will follow in our footsteps."

After spells in Austria, the United States, China and Israel, Albanian international Salihi returned home this summer. "It's been years since I last played in Albania, but I continued to follow the domestic game," said the 31-year-old striker. "It was my dream to make history with an Albanian club, and having seen the potential of Skënderbeu, I thought it was the right time to return. Thankfully, my wish came true."

In 2012, having been eliminated from Europe by Hungarian outfit Debrecen, Mirel Josa replaced Stanislav Levy as coach and president Agim Zeqo was replaced by Ardian Takaj in the summer. Three years later, the Albanian champions are competing against the likes of Lokomotiv Moskva and Sporting CP in Europe after writing their name in the history books.

Former Eagles international Shkëmbi, in his third spell at his hometown club, began his career at the Korce-based outfit in 1997. "It's a totally different club from when I first started. Ex-president Zeqo and current president Takaj have transformed the club. The team has improved and adapted to European football.

"I grew up at this club. It's made me into the player I am today, so of course it's got a special place in my heart. It has given me my livelihood, and in return I have worked really hard."

Beşiktaş celebrate José Sosa's goal
Beşiktaş celebrate José Sosa's goal©AFP

José Sosa scored the only goal of the game last time out as the Turkish giants denied the debutants in Elbasan. "We learnt from that challenge. Every game we play against a strong team we learn something," Shkëmbi explained.

Salihi says that Josa's charges, who claimed their fifth successive Albanian Super League title last term, must raise their game in Europe: "In this competition mistakes are punished. We are playing at a higher level, every second is important – a set piece can win you the match."

The newcomers travel to Moscow on matchday two, but for Shkëmbi, this season will already live long in the memory: "The results we have achieved are like the cherry on top of the cake for me, in terms of my career."

Meanwhile, Salihi is targeting a repeat performance next season: "The team is getting stronger every day, and that is a positive thing. Next year we hope to do the same as this season but even better. We won't be an unknown quantity anymore, so hopefully we will be taken seriously by our European opponents."