Albania qualified for Euro 2016, their first major tournament, after a 3-0 away win over Armenia clinched second place in Group I above Denmark on Sunday sparking wild celebrations across the country.
Albania finished behind the group winners, Portugal, but above Denmark, who will await their play-off fate, in the final group standings to reach next summer’s tournament in France.
Portugal, who won 2-1 away to Serbia, have 21 points, Albania 14 and Denmark, who had finished their matches, 12. Serbia and Armenia finished with only four and two points each.
Albania went in front after nine minutes thanks to an own goal by Armenia’s Kamo Hovhannisyan and they added further goals through the defender Berat Djimsiti and substitute Armando Sadiku.
Across Albania and in Kosovo, the mainly ethnic Albania state where some of the players were born, fireworks lit up the sky before the match ended. People streamed on to the streets after the final whistle, waving flags and driving around town.
“This qualification is historic,” Albania’s FA president, Armando Duka, said. “We did not deserve the defeats at home [to Portugal in September and Serbia on Thursday]. We do not have a team of superstars, but they have heart and a collective spirit.“
Referring to the 2-0 home loss against Serbia, their Italian coach, Gianni De Biasi, added: “It was not easy after the defeat with Serbia. We felt the pressure, but the boys played extremely well. I wish the country grows having these boys as an example.
“Few people believed we could have made it in the beginning, but we all made it. We all contributed to this achievement. The renewal of my contract is automatic. The figures need to change though.”
Armenia had the first chance when Yura Movsisyan’s powerful free kick pierced Albania’s wall and was saved by Etrit Berisha.
The opener came after the midfielder Odise Roshi’s deflected strike set up Migjen Basha inside the area. His shot came off the goalkeeper Gevorg Kasparov and Hovhannisyan turned the ball into his own net trying to stop a charging Shkelzen Gashi.
In the 23rd minute, Djimsiti touched a free-kick from Ledian Memushaj into the net to give Albania a 2-0 half-time lead.
Heckled by their fans at the break, Armenia played better in the second period, launching several dangerous attacks, with Marcos Pizzelli striking a powerful shot in the 71st minute.
However, Albania sealed the victory in the 76th when striker Sadiku fired home inside the area from a pass by Roshi.
“When I first started playing for Albania 12 years ago, I never thought this day would come but we always tried and now have managed to do it thanks to the willpower of this group, this fine generation of players,” said the captain, Lorik Cana.
Albania had a rollercoaster qualifying campaign, which included two bruising politically-fragile encounters with Serbia, who beat Albania with two goals in added time.
The previous fixture in Belgrade was abandoned after a drone flying a banner depicting the so-called Greater Albania was flown over the stadium, provoking a brawl among the players and the invasion of the pitch by some Serbia fans.
Albania were given three points on appeal by European the governing body UEFA and Cana added: “Despite beating us on Friday, Serbia will now watch us in France drinking beer in front of the TV.”