Euro 2016: Albania players get heroes’ welcome

TIRANA, Albania (AP) Players in the Albanian national football team flew home to a heroes’ welcome Monday after qualifying for the 2016 European Championships – the first major tournament the country has ever reached.

Jubilant fans gathered at Tirana’s Mother Teresa Airport as players returned a day after beating Armenia 3-0 for second place in Group I behind Portugal.

Prime Minister Edi Rama gave players a red carpet welcome at his office after traveling to the airport and hugging players as they came off the plane. President Bujar Nishani awarded the team the country’s highest civilian award, the Honor of National Order.

”Last night, an impossible dream ended. It became reality,” Rama told players after handing them a separate award.

”Like never before, you made Albania and Albanians everywhere feel the dream of going to the finals of a European Championship.”

Rama promised to push ahead with plans to build a new national football stadium, which he said would have a golden plaque with the names of the current national squad.

Emotions in Albania ran high over the past week after the national team suffered a shock 2-0 defeat at home to Serbia, conceding both goals in injury time.

But coach Gianni De Biasi’s men overcame their anxiety for a comfortable win in Yerevan, taking the lead with an own goal in the ninth minute before Berat Xhimshiti and Armando Sadiku added one in each half.

As the game ended spontaneous celebrations erupted around this country of 3 million people – one of Europe’s poorest and still bearing the scars of decades of Communist dictatorship – as well in large immigrant communities around Europe.

Much of the capital Tirana remained draped in the national colors, red and black, after a night of street celebrations.

The partying culminated Monday when players wearing traditional white felt caps stamped with a black eagle, the national emblem, celebrated in the stage at victory concert at Mother Teresa Square, in front of thousands of youngsters, all singing and dancing to songs from Albania and Kosovo.

”Let’s celebrate today,” team captain Lorik Cana told revelers.

”Then start preparations for the European Championship. We will go with our heads held high”