Albanian women claim historic World Cup qualification
TIRANA, April 12 – Albania claimed a historic injury time qualification for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup as they beat neighboring Greece 2-1 in their final preliminary round fixture to take the group’s lead, progressing to the qualifying group stage.
Kosovo-Albanian striker Furtuna Velaj who plays in the Norwegian women’s league was the fixture’s protagonist as she scored an injury time goal to give Albania a 2-1 lead and compensate for her missed penalty kick in the 50th minute when the result was level at 1-1.
Albania took advantage of their numerical superiority as Greece was left in 10 women after the penalty kick but it was not until the 90th minute that Velaj avenged her missed opportunity to score a qualifier for the Albanian national side. The last minute victory gave Albania the group’s lead with seven points, one more than second placed Greece.
The national side beat Kosovo 3-2 in the opening preliminary round match in Group B in what was considered a small derby of Albanian-roots, dominated by Kosovo players as Albania’s only five-year-old women’s national side features as many as 15 Kosovo women in the 22 football players called up for this tournament.
The women’s Albania-Kosovo encounter was the first official fixture between the two ethnic Albanian countries in less than a year after Kosovo was admitted as a full member by the world football’s governing body, FIFA.
Albania was earlier held in a goalless draw by Malta in their second group fixture and desperately needed a victory in the final match on April 11 against Greece, who had won both previous qualifiers with Kosovo and Malta .
Albania coach Armir Grima described the qualification as a reward for the players’ maximum confidence and dedication in the tournament.
“The whole confidence we had materialized with a good performance, a victory and qualification. We were confident we would win ever since the draw. The team play is the strength of these women. They are incredible women who dedicate themselves a lot when training and playing and manage to get positive results,” said Grima, the second coach of Albania women’s national side who succeeded former Albania international Altin Rraklli in April 2016.
Furtuna Velaj who scored her second goal in three appearances at the preliminary round tournament held in Albania from April 6 to 11 said she never thought Albania would win with an injury time goal.
“When I missed the penalty kick I still thought we stood other chances and the important thing was not demoralizing. I knew that it would be a tough fixture against Greece but I never thought we would win this way and that I would score a last-minute qualifier,” said 27-year-old Velaj, who has been playing with Albania since 2013.
The qualification to the group stage is a major success for the Albanian women’s national side, only five years after their debut.
Albania, Israel, Kazakhstan, the Faroe Islands and best runners-up Moldova will join the 30 top-ranked entrants in the qualifying group stage in a draw scheduled for April 25.
The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup will be held in France being the eighth tournament since the inaugural 1991 Women’s World Cup in China.