Date:15th December 2015 at 12:20am
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Italian coach Giovanni De Biasi has recently guided Albania to their first ever major tournament, Marco Jackson looks at how he has achieved a once impossible feat.

International football finds itself in a strange situation currently. For FIFA, its global governing body, there is simply mistrust, corruption and arrests; every day seeming to bring a new disgrace. For UEFA, the regional little brother, there is an element of pride.

By the simple matter of expanding their local tournament, UEFA produced a qualification campaign that was entertaining and exciting than any that had gone before. Many things were said and written about the expanded European Championships in France in 2016, but thus far, all the naysayers have been silenced.

As if a qualification tournament that was unmissable from first kick to last wasn’t enough, some of the teams who made their way through it were a joy to behold.

Wales and Northern Ireland did the British Isles proud, while Iceland finished a job they were not quite able to do for the previous World Cup. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all, though, was Albania. With Italian coach Giovanni De Biasi at the helm, the Shqiponjat (Eagles) have reached their first ever major tournament. For their coach, and his ideas, it was a dream come true.

Qualification was a landmark in Albanian football, a boost for a nation of passionate sports fans and vindication for the Italian at the helm. It was still a surprise.

De Biasi has been holding the reins in Tirana for just under four years now. It would be fair to say he has overseen an upturn in results, though erroneous to say that was not the continuation of an already on-going trend.

Albania have been improving steadily over the last few campaigns, initially manoeuvring themselves above the likes of Luxembourg and Georgia before stepping ahead of Cyprus in the previous qualification group.

Now ranked 38th, a little lower than their high of 22nd earlier in the year, De Biasi has brought consistency to his team – so much so that qualification felt like another step on a well pointed path, rather than an outlandish stroke of luck.

Born in Samede, in the North East of Italy, De Biasi has now been granted dual Albanian citizenship, and has fully adapted to his new country and its inhabitants. As he noted in an interview with Gazzetta Dello Sport, the former Torino tactician appreciates that Albanian people can be found all over Europe.

“We have a flag and a people,” he enthused, “It goes beyond borders because Albanians are everywhere with their enthusiasm and love for the motherland.”

It is something he has demonstrated to the full in his choice of players, particularly in those that have agreed to turn out for the Shqiponjat despite having claims from other countries.

Take Taulant Xhaka. Perhaps less well-known than Granit of Borussia Moenchengladbach, he was advised against turning out for the country of their birth by his younger brother, who had accrued a few Switzerland caps before Taulant’s call-up.

Having progressed through the Swiss youth ranks, the Basel defender elected to seek out an Albanian passport, eventually making his debut for his parents’ homeland against Portugal in 2014 – under De Biasi.

Xhaka is just one of six Swiss-based players in the most recent squad, but he was joined with a sprinkling of Italian-based players, and various others who share that love for their motherland despite not having been born there.

It is something he has promoted throughout his tenure, blooding younger players, and refreshing the team. The recent friendlies against Kosovo and Georgia saw another Swiss-born player, Frederic Veseli, and Inter’s Rei Manaj join the squad.

A squad that is open to any player, he has explained “Who always plays well, who always fights, who considers himself part of a team, who laughs even when replaced, who always jumps to come when convened at the national team.”

There was little indication when he left Udinese that De Biasi would go on to achieve great things. He had enjoyed limited success in Italy, never quite earning a big break. The spell with the Zebrette ended with unfinished business, and a coach wanting more control than he had found with Italian clubs.

“I realized,” he noted, “that to make a certain type of football you have to be at the center of the project and often an Italian coach is not. And began my adventure in Tirana.”

After it takes him to France next summer, that adventure will return De Biasi to his own homeland, as Albania and Italy have been drawn together in 2018 World Cup qualifying. Whatever the outcome, De Biasi has ensured his side will not be taken lightly.

Albania were drawn alongside Switzerland, Romania and hosts France in Group A at UEFA EURO 2016.