It’s fair to say Armand Duka is riding the crest of a wave as president of the Albanian FA. A rampaging Euro2024 qualifying campaign with a style of football unseen by his nation, reaching Germany was the pinnacle of Duka’s involvement with the local game.
Many dubbed Duka’s decision to appoint Sylvinho as head coach of Albania in January as ‘courageous’. With experience as manager of Olympique Lyon and Corinthians, nothing stood out in the Brazilian’s coaching cv. But Duka wanted a shift in how the national team played and was convinced enough after speaking with the former Barcelona and Arsenal defender that Sylvinho was the man to do it.
A little over ten months on and Duka can feel justified in his decision. Albania, under the guidance of Sylvinho, stormed their qualifying campaign, reaching the Euros directly as group leaders ahead of the more fancied Czech Republic and Poland.
Now involved in local football for two decades, Duka admits the national team’s success in 2023 was unimaginable just a few years ago.
“From the first day, it would have been impossible to think that we would achieve these results as we did in 2023,” he told Tribalfootball.com. “I think this year 2023 has been the best year for Albanian football in history.
“From the first day thinking that in 2023 we would finish first in our group stage, to get 4 points against the Czech Republic, to have these kinds of results also at an international administrative level was almost impossible for me.”
In terms of “international administrative level”, Duka is referring to him being recognised by UEFA. Having been Albania’s FA president since 2002, Duka is now also a vice-president of UEFA, a recognition granted earlier this year.
“I would lie to you if I would say that I thought back then that I would be the VP of UEFA now and that the Albanian National team would be at this kind of level,” Duka continued. “But I would say that from the first day I have worked with devotion, great passion and joy towards my duty and to make better and improve the FA, the structure of the organisation, the infrastructure, and to achieve great results with the national team.”
Those “results” now include a second Euros qualification. Gianni de Biasi’s 2016 players are regarded as all-time heroes for Albania, but how does Sylvinho’s boys compare?
“The only similarity I would say is that of being in the Euros,” Duka insists. “The qualification in Euro 2016 was different because it happened after the events of the match in Beograd against Serbia. With CAS, we were given 3 points but also the opponent were deducted 3 points as a penalty.
“We were not the most convincing team during those qualifications and we didn’t achieve a win against Serbia and Portugal in our country. Due to these results, we needed to win in Armenia and that was a very emotional moment for me.
“Instead, in this qualifying edition we were the most convincing team in the results and how we played. We were superior against all our opponents. As I said, we picked up 4 points against the Czech Republic, 4 points against Moldova, 4 points against Faroe Islands, and 3 points against Poland but with a better goal difference than our opponent. During this period we have played very well, we have made beautiful goals except for the last match… which I was not very happy about!”
Duka admits it’s been a pleasure watching the national team mature and respond to the methods of Sylvinho and his lieutenants Pablo Zabaleta and Doriva.
He continued: “The Albania of De Biasi was a defensive team that used the counterattack and maximised it very well. In contrast, the Albania of Sylvinho is different. It has an attacking football philosophy. For example in Moldova, despite the fact we drew there in the first half, we had 82% possession of the ball which has not ever happened in Albanian history.
“If you had asked me before the match against the Czech Republic, I would have been happy with a draw. I didn’t expect to win, not because we were the weakest team but because against important teams like the Czech Republic, it’s not easy to win especially to dominate like that. Also against Poland I had the same feeling, and yeah it was fantastic to win and see our team playing like that.”
One of the key successes of this Duka era has been the expanding depth in talent. With Armando Broja at Chelsea, Kristjan Asllani with Inter Milan and Nedim Bajrami with Sassuolo, the national team has a group of young players as good as any in the nation’s history. While reluctant to talk favourites, Duka credits the work of Albania’s coaches and the improvement in facilities for what is now available to Sylvinho.
“For me, it’s very hard to say individual names or to choose individual players. Every one of them is a very good player in different moments, in different periods, and different matches. For the time that I have been the President of the FA we have selected our players giving so much importance on being good human beings. We have had luck during these times because all of our players are very good people with great hearts.
“Now we are in a very good condition with a great stadium like ‘Air Albania’, with a wonderful training complex and everything else. But in the past, the players of our national team due to the conditions have sacrificed a lot, both during the period that I have been President but also before.”
But 20 years on and Albania now sit at the top end of the game, both on the pitch and in the board room.
“The changing of our approach at the Albanian FA and the raising of our level is now being recognised,” Duka concludes. “We now have more than half of our administrative staff included in UEFA administrations organs or committees.”
… and a national team with a place now comfortably secured for Euro 2024.
– photo from Profimedia