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Finally, one euro represents an entire continent

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During the World Cup in the summer of 1982, Eddie Rama’s best friend happened to be the only person he knew who had a color TV. So every night, Rama would huddle in the kitchen with countless others, desperately hoping that the fuzzy, flickering signal would last.

At the time, Albania was an island nation under the tyrannical machinations of Enver Hoxha. All but a few insiders were banned from traveling abroad. Even communication with the outside world, especially the West, was restricted. Rama and his friends could only watch the World Cup through what he later called the “dark web,” a channel run by Italy’s national television station, RAI.

In a recent interview with Italy’s Tuttosport, he said he still remembers that month vividly. Italy is Albania’s embodiment of this World Cup; in Rama’s opinion, the two countries “A people divided by an ocean, yet united in all other respects, as alike as two drops of water.” When Italy captain Dino Zoff finally lifted the trophy in Madrid, he also felt the victory in Tirana. “We saw the trophy in his hands as if it was in our hands too,” Rama said.

But victory was also a bonus. Rama remembers most that summer, decades before he became Albania’s prime minister, when he got a taste of life outside his country. The commentator’s words, he said, “had an indescribable effect on us, making us feel less alone in that black hole.”

Earlier this year, at the opening of an exhibition on the life of Paolo Rossi, one of Italy’s greatest heroes from that World Cup, Rama put it more vividly. “For us, football is more than just a ball and a sport, it’s a microcosm of another world,” he said.It was a chance to see a moving mirror, a forbidden dream.

Four decades on, Rama has not forgotten that power. Prime Minister since 2013, he rarely misses an opportunity to use sports — he played basketball in his youth — and especially football, as a tool that not only wins votes but also defines a country.

Last year he participated in a national competition Architect sought to design three new stadiumsin the cities of Durres, Vlora and Korça. In the local election campaign, at least part of his platform revolved around his agreement with Manchester City, which would see the Premier League champions open a football school in Durres. In 2022, Tirana hosted European Conference League.

This is in stark contrast to much of the country’s football history. From a footballing perspective, Albania has long lagged behind the rest of Eastern Europe. Under Hoxha’s leadership, the country’s teams often refused to play in international competitions, fearing that players would defect if exposed to the West.

In the years after Hoxha was ousted, Albanian clubs had so little revenue that match-fixing and corruption were rife. There was also little or no youth development in Albania: of the 26-man squad that represented the country at the European Championship this year, only eight members were born in Albania. The rest were expatriates, with roots in Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Slough, a satellite city of London that claims to be the setting for the original The Office and the birthplace of the Albanian striker. Armando Broha.

Of course, for Rama, seeing this team rise to the top of Europe this summer will be proof that his hard work is starting to bear fruit. Albania is finally starting to pull itself out of its shell. Meanwhile, a similar thing is happening across much of Eastern Europe.

While Albania is an extreme case, what it has endured in the three decades since the fall of communism is reflected elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc. State-funded youth facilities have fallen into disrepair. Corruption is rampant. Team owners and player agents have squeezed what little money is left out of the professional soccer system. And Western clubs are eager to snatch up any shred of talent.

For a long time, it felt like the decline was irreversible. Romania hadn’t been to the World Cup since 1998. Serbia hadn’t played in the European Championship since 2000. No Eastern European team had made the semifinals since Russia in 2008. Until 2016, only a handful of teams had managed to make it to the European Championship.

This time, though, Eastern European teams make up 11 of the 24 teams in the competition. More importantly, the opening week of the tournament has shown that they are more than just the lucky beneficiaries of the tournament’s somewhat clumsy expansion.

Georgia is the lowest ranked team in the European Championship, on par with Turkey In the first match of a major tournamentSlovenia got a point against Denmark. Serbia almost got a point against England. Portugal had to score twice in the final moments to beat the Czech Republic. Romania beat Ukraine in the Munich sun.

Albania took the lead against Italy with the fastest goal in European Championship history, then took a point from Croatia – which for years had been the exception in Eastern Europe – and in theory still had a chance to advance to the knockout rounds.

Granted, the chances are slim – Albania are most likely to beat Spain in Monday’s game in Düsseldorf. More likely, by the time the semi-finals start, they will once again be a distinctly Western match.

It is almost inevitable. International football is now defined by club football. The best players, the best coaches and the best ideas all move to the richest, most powerful leagues, enabling them to develop young players on a massive scale.

Whether other national teams succeed depends largely on where those leagues choose to invest their money, time and resources. The major European teams tend to scout out the best players. National teams like Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands are favored because they are thoroughly scouted and collect a lot of data on each young player, while national teams like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic feel less familiar and more distant.

Perhaps the strength of Eastern Europe is enough to prevent a real shift in the balance of play; perhaps economic realities mean Romania will never again reach a World Cup quarter-final, or the Czechs are one step away from becoming European champions.

Yet the first week of Euro 2024 has shown that not only can the gap be closed – even if only slightly – but that doing so is in the interests of the tournament and European football as a whole The Euros are better when they feel truly representative of the continent, when the emissaries of football’s other world come in from the cold.

Fool me twice There is a popular tradition among football commentators that, on the eve of a big tournament, they encourage us to play a little prophet. Every celebrity, and quite a few ordinary people, are asked to make two predictions: one for the winner and the other for a surprise.

The first one is simple. There are only a limited number of teams that can really win the championship: a maximum of 8 teams in the European Cup and a maximum of 10 teams in the World Cup.

The second task is much trickier. Partly because the field is naturally much larger. But mostly because no one knows what the rules are.

How far does a dark horse have to go for your prediction to be correct? Do you think they might win the title? Or make the semifinals? Or maybe scare one of the favorites by going out in the round of 16? Will the Netherlands be a dark horse? Will Croatia? How about Italy?

The answers to these questions are entirely personal, but the uncertainty of the parameters usually means that, over the years, everyone nominates one of two countries: Turkey, or Serbia.

This time, no one wanted to fall into that trap. Turkey was designated as a nobody at Euro 2020 and promptly lost its three group games. Serbia had never won a knockout match as an independent nation and last qualified for the European Championship in 2000. Even football journalists could not ignore the overwhelming evidence.

So I was shocked to see Turkey beat Georgia in their opening match in the pouring rain in Dortmund. Turkey scored two brilliant goals and played a thrilling open game. Of course, the opponents were limited, but at the same time, a hesitant thought flashed through my mind: I thought Turkey might be the dark horse of this tournament.

SHOW OF MIGHT We’ll have more to report soon on the difficulties Germany’s public transport infrastructure has encountered in the first week of the World Cup, but it’s also worth noting that the large number of riot police on the streets of the host cities has been very visible and even threatening.

Generally speaking, this approach to policing is now seen in many countries as counterproductive and only fostering an unnecessarily confrontational atmosphere. Academics and some law enforcement agencies agree that relying on intelligence (often provided by undercover police officers who are strategically placed among fan groups) is a far better approach than intimidation.

The German authorities have clearly taken a different approach, cancelling all holidays during the tournament and ensuring fans know they are being monitored at all times. They will no doubt point to the events of last week, Axe-wielding man shot dead Not far from the Hamburg fan zone, this became the reason for the decision. However, it gave the impression that Germany is a very nervous country.

Forest and trees One reason Germany seems to be having trouble staging the World Cup is that many of its stadiums are located in forested areas, so for more police officers than you might think, that means spending much of this month in or near forests.

Hamburg and Frankfurt in particular have unusually bucolic vibes, while Cologne is arguably forested. The stadiums in Düsseldorf and Berlin are far enough from the centre of their respective cities to have a distinctly forested atmosphere. I won’t pretend to know why this is, but my working theory is that it’s a reflection of Varus’s Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

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