When the Albanian football team run on the pitch to take on Sven Goran Eriksson's England in the World Cup qualifier at St James' Park in Newcastle tonight, they can expect the silence from the away supporters' end to be deafening.
The bottom-of-the-group Balkan side will start the game as rank outsiders – and with an almost total absence of their own fans. The immigration department of the Home Office confirmed yesterday it had issued just 20 visas to Albanian supporters, amid fears that many others were planning to travel to the match only to claim asylum after the final whistle.
Immigration officials are eager to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment last summer when 22 "fans" of the Lithuanian team FK Atlantas failed to show up for the flight home after their Intertoto Cup defeat at Bradford City.
To qualify for a visa to visit the UK, Albanian fans have had to prove they had already travelled to the national team's previous World Cup qualifying games in Germany, Finland and Greece. Crucially, they had to provide documentary proof that they had returned to their home country – the origin of a large proportion of asylum-seekers in Britain. A Home Office spokesman said: "A view has to be taken, and one of the reasons is whether or not they would present any risk of claiming asylum when they got here."
In the run-up to the game, the Home Office rejected 155 visa applications, including 70 from the Albanian Football Association. An additional 85 applications from travel agencies and individuals were refused.
In total, 102 visas have been granted to Albanian nationals by the British Embassy in the Albanian capital, Tirana, of which 82 were for players, officials and accredited press.