For a team facing a thrashing, the Albanians seemed remarkably relaxed yesterday. Their 10-hour journey from Tirana had been tiring, yes, and their Newcastle hotel – a low-key, out-of-town Holiday Inn adjacent to a Little Chef and a petrol station – was hardly a match for England's splendid Slaley Hall lodgings. But there was little to betray that they were 24 hours from a meeting with the team who destroyed Germany 5-1 on Saturday.
Some of the players spent the day in the hotel bar, watching with wry amusement as the sports channel on television played an almost continuous loop of the Munich goalfest and its aftermath. They were only vaguely distracted when Sir Norman Wisdom, a national icon back home, arrived accompanied by a trombone and four scantily-clad lovelies. One member of the party sought inspiration at the bar ("How much for Red Bull, please?"), while a couple of others tried to catch a lift to the nearest sports shop. Chelsea FC shirts were the aim, apparently.
And then there were the rest, like the captain, Rudi Vata, and the left wing-back, Edwin Murati, neither of whom started in Albania's last game, Saturday's 2-0 home defeat to Finland, but who were both seeking refuge from its consequences. It was the first match under a new manager, the 37-year-old Sulejman Demollari, and it was not what they or their country wanted. "We've got problems at the moment, not only with how we played, but mentally, too," Demollari said after the game. Vata said: "We had a very good first half but never took our chances. Finland had half a chance and took it. Our heads went down, our morale went down."
Neither Vata nor Murati are strangers to asylum seeking, in the literal sense, both having taken political refuge in France. After Vata did so, in 1990, he played amateur football for a year before moves to Celtic and, later, Germany. After Murati followed, as a 15-year-old illegal immigrant, he was offered a trial with Paris St-Germain's under-17 side. He impressed enough for the then PSG president, Michel Denisot, to help him gain full political asylum in 1993. "Football was the only way he could make something of himself," Denisot said later. The player himself concurred: "The fact that I am still alive is because someone up there wants me to be. I was born under a lucky star."
Whether that star will shine brightly and produce a celestial-inspired miracle this evening at St James' Park remains to be seen, but Murati's career has progressed impressively. Loan spells at Chateauroux and Dusseldorf led, in 1999, to the player securing a first-team French league debut with PSG aged 23. His quick but combative style – he plays a defensive role for Albania but in a more advanced position for his current club, Lille – led to interest from Borussia Dortmund, among others. Last summer, he signed a three-year contract with the newly-promoted French club. In a fortnight he will be competing in the Champions' League, against Manchester United.
"The game against England is a big game," Murati said yesterday, content to focus on the immediate future. "But we are very relaxed about it. Sure, they have great players – Beckham, Owen, Heskey, Campbell – but we are not here to defend. England beat Germany 5-1 but it's wrong just because of that to say there are big teams and small teams and the big team will win. We're taking this seriously."
Although England won 3-1 in Tirana (albeit after the home side were denied a goal by a harsh offside decision) and go into tonight's World Cup Group Nine fixture on the back of the Germany triumph, Vata echoed his team-mate's sentiments. "Who is Michael Owen?" he joked. "That player who we will mark with two people and give as little space as possible to?
"England may be the best team in the world this week, but this is going to be a different game altogether from the Germany game."
Given that Murati will return from suspension, that the first-choice goalkeeper, Fotaq Strakosha, is likely to overcome an injury, and that Albania might play three strikers (Altin Rraklli, who scored against England in Tirana; Alban Bushi, a creative attacker who could play deep in midfield; and Igli Tare (who Gianluca Vialli tried to sign for Watford in July), the visitors believe they have cause for optimism that tonight they will not be on the receiving end of a Munich mauling.Reuse content