- Official language: Albanian
Euro 2016 throws up some interesting linguistic cases, but of these Albania could well be the most intriguing.
First though, some context.
Albanians call themselves Shqiptar, which roughly translates as “people of the eagle”. And these eagle-people aren’t just from one land mass, they represent a diaspora: a community of people from across the world who identify as Albanian.
More outside than in
Following mass emigration under Communism, Albanians are spread far and wide. There are 3 million Shqiptar in Albania itself, with 10-12 million across the Balkans, Western Europe and the US.
On his appointment in 2011, manager Gianni di Biasi was given carte blanche to use this diaspora, convincing players from Switzerland, Germany, Italy and the former Yugoslavia to join the project. The scope of this influx is highlighted by the fact that captain Lorik Cana is one of few in the current side who pre-dates di Biasi’s arrival.
A passionate subject
A dispersed people, disputed territories and a difficult history make Albanian identity a subject of vehement passions.
Granit Xhaka plays his international football for Switzerland, but would later reveal his regret in turning down Albania and warning younger brother Taulant ‘not to make the same mistake he did’. Taulant took the advice, but Xhaka has yet to be forgiven by Albanian fans.
Other diaspora-born players such as Arlind Arjeti joined as a result of the abandoned game against Serbia in 2014. Given the history between Serbia and Albania, it was always going to be heated, and if you’re not familiar with the story of the drone, the flag and the ensuing chaos, Futbolgrad tell it well. For us, the important element is that the whole affair stoked Albanian pride, prompting another influx to the national team.
What is the Albanian language like?
The thing is, there’s nothing quite like Albanian. It’s one of Europe’s oldest languages and sits alone on its own branch of the Indo-European tree. If you’re after a modern reference, its sounds are a little bit like Hungarian, with some distinctive nasal vowels thrown in to stop it all getting too familiar.
And within that there are two sets of dialects: Gheg in the north and Tosk to the South. The Gheg dialects stopped being the standard when the Communist regime threw its weight behind the supposedly less elitist Tosk. Today, both flourish and are mutually intelligible, or just about.
Who speaks what
So you’ve got two groups of dialects and host of diaspora-born players, often with only limited knowledge of Albanian.
It adds up to a Babel of a situation in the dressing room, and the solution is found in the kind of make-do multilingualism you usually see in club football.
There are the Kosovan- and Albanian-born players who speak Albanian, which De Biasi also speaks fluently (although English is the working language in the camp). Then there are the Swiss Albanians who communicate in German and, to add to the mix, Di Bialsi speaks Italian to those based in Italy.
But it all works. Lorik Cana has commented that “there are things we say differently, but on the field we understand each other very well”. And to the fans it’s all the same; Di Bialsi and Cana have fostered a collective spirit which everyone is happy to get behind.
We approve of the Albanian approach to nicknames, which carries echoes of 90s NBA and the likes of The Mailman, The Reignman and the Glove.
- Sokol Cikaleshi: The Tank (Tanku)
- Odise Roshi: The Rocket (Racketa)
- Taulant Xhaka: The Lion (Luan)
- Emir Lenjani: The Cheetah (Gatopard)
- Etrit Berisha: The Wall (Muri)
Songs they sing
In parts of Europe, passions do not run as high for the national team as they do at club level. Perhaps because of this, the culture of singing is less fervent.
Not so for Albania, where national pride is echoed in the noise from the stands.
- Shqiperi, O nena imd: Albania, my motherland
- Ti Shqiperi me jep nder: Albania, you give me pride
- Fluturon Shqiponja: The Eagle flies
- O sa mire me wen Shqiptar: Oh how good it is to be Albanian
The last of these chants has become something of a rallying cry for the new Albania. Ultras group Tifozat Kuq e Zi’ (Red and Black Fans) claim credit for its invention, saying that it was originally tongue-in-cheek, dating from a time when Shqiptar didn’t feel they had a lot to shout about.
Gradually, though, the chant had a galvanising effect on Albanian identity. Today, it is everywhere: it adorns the team bus, it features in pop songs and it crops up on TV shows, having transcended football to become an Albanian call to arms.
With thanks to Artor Behluli of the Albanian Fan Club, and Beso Hoxha.