Albania’s reigning champions in crisis over severe UEFA match-fixing ban

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 6, 2019 18:42

Albania’s reigning champions in crisis over severe UEFA match-fixing ban

TIRANA, Feb. 6 – Albania’s reigning champions Skenderbeu are officially in crisis after suffering their sixth consecutive Superliga defeat in a situation that reflects financial problems and uncertainties ahead as they await a final say by Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport over a 10-year European competition ban handed by European football’s governing body, UEFA, last year over match-fixing.

Having dominated Albanian football in the past decade and being the sole Albanian club to make it to the group stage of the Europa League competition, Skenderbeu started the 2018-19 campaign as a top favorite and dominated the first 11 Superliga games.

However, the Korà§a-based club, southeastern Albania, nicknamed “The snow wolves” lost sharp ground last December as they lost all four games.

The critical situation continued even after the winter break as Skenderbeu lost at home to leaders Partizani and was also beaten away to relegation-zone Kastrioti during the past week following the resumption of the Superliga’s second stage on Jan. 25.

Having played 20 games, and with still another 16 to go before the Superliga closes, Skenderbeu have dropped to fifth with 30 points, trailing leaders Partizani by 13 points and with few chances to repeat the 2018 Superliga success which would nevertheless make them ineligible to compete in European competitions due to a UEFA ban in force since March 2018.

The situation reflects key departures from last year’s winning team that continued even in the January transfer window with the transfer of Kosovo international, defender Fidan Aliti, to Sweden's top league side Kalmar for a reported €150,000 on a four-year deal with Skenderbeu retaining a 25 percent stake on the player.

"The departures are hampering our squad, but are justified based on club policies following what happened at European competition," says Orges Shehi, a goalkeeper and captain until a couple of years ago who led Skenderbeu to several trophies before taking over as coach in mid-2018.

"The results have really been not decent for Skenderbeu, but we will do our best to return to victories," Shehi said ahead of an Albania Cup second-leg qualifier with lower-division Beselidhja which Skenderbeu won 3-0 to qualify for the Cup quarter finals where they will meet Superliga rivals, bottom-ranked Kamza.

Skenderbeu claimed their eighth Superliga trophy last season, with seven of their titles earned during the past decade when they dominated Albanian football and became the first ever Albania club to make it to the Europa League group stage with two appearance in the 2015-16 and 2017-18 campaigns.

The 10-year ban and a €1 million fine handed by European football’s governing body, UEFA, in March 2018 made Skenderbeu ineligible to compete in this season international competition where Albanian clubs failed to make it to the group stage of either the Champions League or Europa League.

UEFA’s disciplinary body handed Skenderbeu the ban over 50 matched the club is suspected to have fixed in the Champions League and Europa League campaigns as well as in the Albanian Superliga and in friendlies since 2011 based on its betting fraud detection system. The new ban follows an earlier 2016-2017 ban from the UEFA Champions League campaign, which the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld following Skenderbeu’s appeal.

Skenderbeu deny claims and are hopeful of overturning the UEFA punishment, the severest ever handed to a European club, but prospects are Skenderbeu could be lucky to get away with a reduction of their 10-year ban which would still place the club’s future at risk.


Partizani take advantage

Albania’s Partizani have emerged as top favorites to claim a long-awaited Superliga title this season in what could be a major triumph for an elite Albanian club that has been trophiless at the top flight of the country’s football during the past quarter of a century.

With Skenderbeu on six-game losing streak, the Tirana-based club have ousted their key rival and now hold a comfortable five-point lead over second-placed Kukes, a team with not much history but who have been highly competitive in the past five years in a performance that peaked in 2017 when they claimed their first-ever Superliga trophy.

Partizani easily qualified this week for the last eight of the Albanian Cup and will face in the quarter finals Superliga rivals Luftetari who have lost much of their last season's shine that secured their a first ever Europa League qualifier.

Once the most successful Albanian club under communism, Partizani have struggled since 1993 when they claimed their last top league title in a tough transition period as the country switched to a multi-party system and a market economy following almost five decades under a hardline Stalinist dictatorship.

Partizani take to this year’s campaign in an Albanian-led team after a failed short-term experience with an Italian duo last year.

Partizani’s 2017-18 campaign project with Lucciano Moggi, the former Juventus managing director who is suffering a lifetime ban from Italian football for his role in the 2006 ‘Calciopoli’ match-fixing scandal, and former Juventus player Mark Iuliano who only had a short spell as Partizani coach, failed to produce any result with Partizani ranking fifth and failing to progress through the Europa League qualification campaign last season.

Meanwhile, Albania’s historically most successful club, Tirana, continue facing problems this season following their Superliga comeback after an embarrassing first-ever relegation last year, and rank seventh just five points above relegation-threatened Kastrioti and Kamza thanks to series of positive results in the past few games.

The Albanian Superliga features 10 teams, two of which are relegated following a four-stage 36-game championship.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 6, 2019 18:42