Celtic’s potential Qualifying Round 1 opponents in the 2020/21Champions League: KF Tirana of Albania…
Ahead of the draw for the first qualifying round of the 2020/21 Champions League, which takes place in Nyon on Sunday, 9 August 2020, I’m taking a look at the 17 potential opponents for Celtic. There are still one or two things to be finalised, however, most of the options are now known. We’ve already covered Floriana and FK Sileks, so here goes with number three.
3/17: KF Tirana of Albania
The Albanian representative in the 2020/21Champions League will be Klubi i Futbollit Tirana, better known as KF Tirana, who have a UEFA co-efficient of 1.475, compared to Celtic’s 34.
The Tirana club will celebrate its centenary the week after the draw, having been founded on 15 August 1920 as Shoqata Sportive Agimi, which translates as Agimi Sports Association. The football wing of the Sport Klub (SK) Tirana, they have previously competed under that name, as well as Puna Tirana and 17 Nentori (17 November, the date on which Tirana was liberated at the end of the Second World War), before adopting the current KF Tirana label in 1991.
The home colours for KF Tirana are blue-and-white vertical striped jerseys with white shorts and socks. Their current away kit is all black.
The club’s home ground is the Selman Stermasi Stadium in Tirana, named after one of their most famous sons. The all-seater multi-purpose stadium, built in 1956 and holding just under 10,000 spectators, was known as the Dinamo Stadium until 1991 and was also the home of two rival Tirana clubs, Dinamo and Partizani. Many major matches in Albania, however, are played at the nearby national stadium, Qemal Stafa, which can accommodate 20,000 fans.
The club’s nickname is simply Tirona, so we’ve finally run out of Celtic or Irish puns, unless we can wangle a Bhoys from County Tyrone from that!
The 10-team Kategoria Superiore will conclude on Wednesday, having been suspended from 12 March to 3 June, due to the COVID pandemic. Second-placed FK Kukesi’s 1-0 defeat at KF Vllaznia on 18 July meant that KF Tirana, who had beaten KS Flamurtari 2-0 at home 24 hours earlier, had secured the Albanian title with two games to spare.
CONGRATULATIONS! TIRONA CHAMPION! ⚪🔵🏆
Extraordinary emotions! ✌️ pic.twitter.com/UFiHLPYoCv
— Ilir Meta (@ilirmetazyrtar) July 29, 2020
KF Tirana are Albania’s most successful side, with 25 national titles, 16 Albanian Cups and 11 Albanian Supercups, all of those records. However, prior to this season, it had been 11 years since the club last won the Kategoria Superiore, and, in the meantime, they had suffered their first and only relegation from the top-flight, at the end of 2016/17. KF have bounced back to reclaim their old position at the top of Albanian football within three years of that demotion.
KF Tirana are also Albania’s most-successful club in European competition, their 26 seasons producing 70 matches with the club winning 11 ties in total. Their European debut was against Scottish champions Kilmarnock, in the preliminary round of the 1965/66 European Cup, albeit at that time the club was known as 17 Nentori. A late Bertie Black goal in the second leg at Rugby Park proved the only goal of the tie, as Malcolm MacDonald’s men progressed to a first-round tie against eventual winners, Real Madrid.
This would lead to a sixth competition win for the Spaniards, at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, following which UEFA awarded Real the ‘old’ European Cup on a permanent basis. That meant a newly designed trophy would be up for grabs by whoever could win the following season’s tournament in Lisbon, on 25 May 1967!
KF Tirana won their first European tie in the Champions Cup of 1982/83, defeating Ireland’s Linfield on away goals, before going out in the next round to Dynamo Kiev. The biggest of their 11 scalps to date has been Dinamo Bucharest, in the Cup Winners’ Cup of 1986/87. They have never progressed to a third round in any of their 26 seasons of continental football.
Celtic and KF Tirana have never met in European competition. As far as I can tell, the closest we came was in the 2010/11 Europa League, when the Albanians lost to Utrecht in the second qualifying round. The Dutch side then eliminated Switzerland’s Luzern before beating Celtic 4-2 in the Play-off, the Bhoys having dropped out of the Champions League following defeat by Sporting Braga of Portugal, in Neil Lennon’s first continental campaign as Hoops manager.
The Bhoys have faced one of KF’S rival clubs from Tirana previously, however, a tie which took place in the autumn of 1979, in Billy McNeill’s first attempt at success in Europe as Parkhead boss. Having missed out on any kind of European football the previous season, following the disastrous 1977/78 domestic campaign, Celtic’s return to that stage involved one of our more bizarre encounters, the club drawn to play Albanian champions Partizani Tirana in the first round of the 1979/80 European Cup.
The lead-up to the first leg in Tirana was unusual to say the least, media coverage dominated by visa issues, which prevented any of their personnel from accompanying the team, together with a request for Hoops captain Danny McGrain to shave off his beard, such things apparently banned in Albania at that time! Whilst the Press were ultimately denied entry to the then-closed country, the legendary facial hair was in place for the match at the Qemal Stafa Stadium on Wednesday, 19 September 1979, which Celts lost 1-0 in front of 31,000 spectators, thanks to a header from Agim Murati, 10 minutes before the interval.
A Vic Davidson header from Davie Provan’s cutback appeared to have given Celts the equaliser with 11 minutes remaining, only to be disallowed for offside, one of several controversial decisions from the Greek officials. The tie took another twist, two weeks later, 15 minutes into the second leg at Parkhead, as Celtic full-back Alan Sneddon continued his recent scoring streak (OK, he scored once, at Ibrox) with another fine header, albeit this time past Peter Latchford in the Hoops goal to put us two behind on aggregate.
Those of us within the 51,000 soaked Celts in the ground that night briefly feared the worst, before the headed goals started raining in at the correct end. Four strikes in a 25-minute spell before half-time, headers from Roddie Macdonald, Roy Aitken (2) and a close-range finish from Vic Davidson, all four set up by Davie Provan, ended the match and one of the strangest European ties in our long history, Celtic able to afford the luxury of a missed penalty from George McCluskey during that first-half blitz.
Celts would go on to narrowly eliminate Dundalk, as my own 40 years of European travels with the Bhoys began, before losing a 2-0 first-leg lead against Real Madrid to exit in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in the quarter-final in March 1980, sadly still the last time we have reached this stage in European football’s premier competition.
As a footnote to this tie, Agim Murati is a hero to Partizani fans, having finished top goalscorer in the Albanian Superliga for three successive seasons from 1976/77, then becoming the only player in the club’s history to score a hat-trick in the derby against KF Tirana, a feat which he achieved within 27 minutes in December 1980.
And yes, you’ve guessed it, the goals were all headers, the attribute for which Murati was best-known. His first child – a son – was born just 10 days after the Parkhead clash. Perhaps in honour of that visit to Scotland, and/or the meeting with Celtic, the couple named the boy Donald! Agim Murati died in September 2005, aged just 52, posthumously awarded the title ‘Legend of Albanian Football’ four years later.
Partizani were the first Albanian side to play in European football, losing to IFK Norrkoping in the 1962/63 Champions Cup. Sweden was also involved as they became the first club from that country to win a continental tie, Partizani eliminating Atvidabergs in the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1970.
The greatest Albanian achievement though, undoubtedly falls to KS Flamurtari, who beat Barcelona 1-0 in the first leg of their third-round UEFA Cup-tie in 1987, having lost only on away goals to the Catalan giants in the same competition the previous season. Dundee United would then beat Barca home and away in the quarter-final, maintaining their unique 100% record against their iconic opponents, en route to becoming the first Scottish team to reach the UEFA Cup Final, where they lost 2-1 to IFK Gothenburg over two legs.
In terms of Scottish teams facing Albanian opposition in Europe, the only instances in the European Cup or Champions League have been the two ties involving Kilmarnock and Celtic, described earlier. Dundee beat KS Vllaznia 6-0 on aggregate in a 2003/04 UEFA Cup qualifier, whilst Motherwell inflicted an 8-1 defeat on KS Flamurtari at Fir Park in the Europa League qualifying round, six years later, the heaviest loss ever suffered by an Albanian club in Europe.
In the Cup Winners’ Cup of 1972/73, Hibernian regained a measure of their self-respect from the 6-1 Scottish Cup Final defeat from Celtic by beating Sporting Lisbon by the same score at Easter Road four months later. They then went one better against Albania’s Besa Kavaje in the next round, winning 7-1 at home before drawing 1-1 in the return. Hibs then lost by the odd goal in nine to Yugoslavia’s Hajduk Split in the quarter-final, having beaten Celtic 2-1 to win the Scottish League Cup in the interim. Aberdeen would have better luck. A John Hewitt strike was the only goal of their first-round tie against Dinamo Tirana in September 1982. The Dons would go all the way to the final before beating Real Madrid 2-1 after extra-time in Gothenburg the following May.
In addition to a strong Albanian flavour, KF’s current squad is made up of players from Brazil, Ghana, Kenya, Argentina and Guinea, whilst their star player last season was an Englishman, Michael Ngoo, a striker who played for Hearts against St Mirren in the 2013 Scottish League Cup Final, whilst on loan from Liverpool. Ngoo managed five goals in 17 appearances during his four-month spell at Tynecastle, and also had a spell at Kilmarnock, following his release from Anfield the following summer, the 6’6” Londoner remaining on the bench at Parkhead on Sunday, 26 October 2014, as Ronny Deila’s Celtic beat the Ayrshire outfit 2-0, with goals from John Guidetti and Stefan Scepovic.
Having spent some time at English non-League side Bromley then Oldham Athletic, Michael joined the then second-tier KF Tirana in September 2017, and last season he managed 12 League goals as the club became champions of Albania.
The manager of KF Tirana is a Nigerian, Ndubuisi Egbo, who celebrated his 47th birthday on Saturday. Egbo made over 150 League appearances for the club between 2001-04, whilst appearing for his country at the African Cup of Nations finals in 2000 and 2002. Last season’s Albanian title triumph, achieved in his first season in charge of Tirana, allowed him to become the first Nigerian coach to win a national League championship with a European club.
If you mention Albania to a younger generation of Celtic supporter, you are more likely to be met by two names, Rudi Vata or Ilir Meta.
The teenage Vata began his senior career with KF Vllaznia in 1988, before moving to Dinamo Tirana, where he won the Albanian Superliga in 1990. The following March, he faked an injury to trigger his own substitution whilst playing for Albania against France in the Parc des Princes, Rudi making his way out of the stadium to a local police station to seek political asylum. Vata had spells at second-tier French clubs Le Mans and Tours before signing for Liam Brady’s Celtic in August 1992, following an outstanding performance for Albania against Ireland in Dublin.
‘Holy Vata’ made his Hoops debut in a 1-0 victory at Dens Park in October 1992, scoring his first goal in a 2-2 draw against Aberdeen at Celtic Park two months later, coming off the bench to equalise after Stuart Slater had finally opened his Hoops account in the first half. Both men had been signed by Brady on the same day.
Whilst that debut season of 1992/93 was his most prolific in terms of appearances, May 1995 would represent Rudi’s highlight at Celtic. On Sunday, 7 May, he scored his final goal for the club, Celtic’s third in a 3-0 victory over Rangers, as the Hoops brought the curtain down on that dreadful Hampden League season before the move back to a rebuilt Celtic Park.
And three weeks later he was back at the national stadium, now a neutral venue as Celts beat Airdrieonians 1-0 to lift the Scottish Cup, thanks to a Pierre van Hooijdonk header. This would prove to be Tommy Burns’ only trophy success as Parkhead manager, whilst Rudi became the first Albanian to win a major honour with a western club. Given how his move to Scotland had come about, there was perhaps some irony that his final games for Celtic were against Paris St Germain in the European Cup Winners’ Cup in October 1995, the first of those back in the Parc des Princes, where his departure from Albania had occurred four years earlier. In total, Rudi made 57 appearances for Celtic, scoring four goals.
Vata left Glasgow 12 months later, signing for Apollon Limassol in Cyprus, before moving to Germany in 1998. After spells with Energie Cottbus and Rot Weiss Ahlen, winning promotion to the Bundesliga in his second season at Cottbus, he returned to his homeland in 2002 to sign for…KF Tirana.
Rudi won a second Albanian Superliga and a Supercup in his single season there before moving to Japan to sign for Yokohama FC, the current team of a certain Shunsuke Nakamura. In January 2004, he returned to Scotland to sign for former Celt Billy Stark at St Johnstone, the big defender then moving back to Albania for one brief, final playing stint with his third Tirana club, the aforementioned Partizani, the following year.
On his retiral from playing football, Rudi stayed in the game as an agent, one notable transfer he was involved with seeing Aiden McGeady move from Celtic to Spartak Moscow in 2010. He also acted for former German World Cup-winner, Pierre Littbarski, whom he had previously played under at Yokohama. Rudi’s younger son Rocco is currently a promising teenager in the Academy at Celtic Park, having declared his international allegiance to Ireland.
Ilir Meta’s connection with Celtic follows a somewhat less traditional route. Meta is the serving president of Albania, and he first came across the Celtic support when we played in Sarajevo in last season’s European opener. Ilir was there for a meeting with state heads from the region, which just so happened to be taking place in the city at the same time as the match between Celtic and FK Sarajevo.
An initial good-natured photo opportunity with the Celtic fans has since taken off in style, with Ilir regularly praising the club or it’s supporters on social media, photographed in his Hoops, occasionally with his friend…Rudi Vata! The President of Albania recently founded the first Celtic Supporters Club in his homeland! And it all began just 12 months ago with a chance meeting in Bosnia-Herzogovina. More than a club indeed.
I understand that Larry Cafiero, a retired newspaper editor based on the West Coast of America is currently in discussions with the Albanian Embassy in Washington (who apparently took some convincing that he was being serious) about arranging an interview with the Albanian President for a football website in Scotland (ie The Celtic Star).
I hope you enjoyed that look at the third of our potential European opponents and our history with clubs and players from that country.
More to follow soon.