In the run-up to the Conference League final between Feyenoord and AS Roma, there is much to say about the limited number of tickets for fans, the small stadium and the atypical football city of Tirana.
“The stadium is a bit like the Abe Lenstra Stadium, so small,” Feyenoord icon Willem van Hanegem told Algemeen Dagblad earlier this week. Put these words to Albanians and you will probably get furrowed eyebrows. Their people’s arena, which can accommodate 22,500 spectators, hardly resembles the Heerenveen stadium.
A story about a modern football theater built on a former football café, a place where fashion stores and UEFA millions come together.
“One day we will have one of the most beautiful stadiums in Europe.”
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama speaks. It is April 2016 and he is speaking during the presentation of the construction plans for a new people’s stadium. He dreams aloud, but also knows that time is running out to prevent “the great shame”.
The national stadium of Albania in 2016 looks like a squatter’s den. Holes in the pavement, yellowed concrete walls full of graffiti and rust spots alternate with electricity cables that hang slack over the fence.
It is – to put it mildly – dingy. And UEFA has informed the Albanians that under these circumstances no more European matches can take place here. The dilapidated stadium does not meet the standards of international football.
And so the shovel goes in the ground to prevent that emergency scenario.
Three years later, November 2019, the brand new Air Albania Stadium opens its doors with a grand ceremony full of fireworks, celebration and frenzied fans. UEFA boss Aleksander Ceferin is also there and praises the Albanians for their “magnificent” stadium.
“In recent years, Albanian football has made immense progress,” the Slovenian admits. “It is imperative that fans can now watch matches in safe and comfortable conditions.”
The foundation for the final on 25 May has been laid here. One year after the opening, the UEFA administration has named Albania to host the first-ever final of the Conference League. Competitive stadiums from France, Greece and North Macedonia are falling behind.
Prime Minister Rama is proud of the new people’s stadium in the capital. He calls it “a prestigious monument”. A place where tradition and modern times come together.
Officially Feyenoord will soon be playing in the “Air Albania Stadium”, but this cozy football temple is popularly called Arena Kombëtare. Literally: national stadium.
The stadium turns red and black (referring to the colors of the Albanian flag) thanks to thousands of vertical panels depicting traditional, handmade Albanian carpets.
The stadium contains historical and geographical references. One of the stands is named after one of the founders of the Albanian communist party, Qemal Stafa. The stadium itself is built in an octagon, which should represent the national borders.
Italians standing in front of the stadium should feel right at home. According to the stadium builders, this stadium is unmistakably Made in Italy. The stadium, located on Sheshi Italia (Italy Square), houses luxury that should also attract non-football fans.
Fashion houses Hugo Boss, Elisabetta Franchi and Enrico Marinelli have a boutique here. Belts and shirts from Florence? They are for sale here. Italian baby clothes? Available here. Italian food? At Italian food & drinks, located on the ground floor.
Even for the Roma fans, the stadium should feel a bit like home. Marco Casamonti, the Italian architect of this stadium, was inspired by the buildings from ancient Rome.
Symmetry, straight lines and high pillars stand out. The space in front of the entrance hall feels like a Roman forum, complete with balcony and balustrade from which you can look down on the rest of the football crowd.
But it is not new. It is the only remnant of the old stadium. If you go back in time via Google Maps (which apparently hasn’t been updated in Tirana since 2016) you will see that the now so stately entrance was a normal football cafe at the time, Bar-Kafe Kampionet.