Sport

Lazio’s Strakosha relishing England challenge in pursuit of Albania dream

Thomas Strakosha is happiest when busy, so he will not be complaining about a potentially laborious evening on Sunday in Tirana. England are in town for a World Cup qualifier as an exciting crop of Albanians look to test themselves against Gareth Southgate’s side.

There are ambitions for Albania to reach their first World Cup but they know to do so means getting points at home against countries such as England. The national team have qualified for only one tournament – Euro 2016 – but a squad including Marash Kumbulla, Armando Broja, Elseid Hysaj and Lazio’s goalkeeper Strakosha could break down the final barrier.

“Facing England is very exciting for us and a very big moment for everybody because I think England has some of the best talents in the world and I think the Premier League is the best league in the world,” Strakosha says from the team’s camp in Barcelona. “Playing against players from England is always exciting and playing against them lets you know you are at a level to compete with them.”

A year of supporter-less stadiums and national lockdowns has turned football into a different sport for many. Victory for Albania would be historic for the country and a gift for the people. “I think it would be unbelievable, especially right now with the Covid situation,” Strakosha says. “It is going to be really good for them, as it’s been really tough for them.”

Covid affected Strakosha personally, keeping him out of the Lazio side in November, with Pepe Reina deputising. There followed a spell largely on the bench before hamstring and knee injuries sidelined Strakosha for a further six weeks, and he has not regained the No 1 spot there.

Strakosha has come close to moving to Britain. Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton have made inquiries and before establishing himself as first choice at Lazio in 2016-17 he almost joined Cardiff. He keeps an eye on the Premier League.

“I like how they play in the Premier League. They play so fast, there are so many shots and you have so much work to do. I enjoy doing a lot of work, as it lets me show my best and gets my adrenaline up. I believe the Premier League has the best football: the speed of it, the reaction you can see in the game. You see games that are 3-0 until the 88th minute and finish 3-3.

“They have crazy moments in the Premier League, and the fans are so close to the pitch, it is unbelievable. You would want to play two games a day due to the unbelievable feeling. When I have been to play friendly matches against English teams, the atmosphere was unbelievable. It’s everyone’s dream to play in the Premier League.”

Strakosha is following in the footsteps of his goalkeeper father, Foto, a former Albania captain who won 73 caps. That generation was held back by communism because players could not play abroad until the 1990s. Thomas was born in 1995 in Greece, where his dad was playing for Olympiakos, and turned down representing the country of his birth to commit to Albania.

“I was in love with football from when I was young due to my father playing. I fell in love really early with goalkeeping, too; I liked to wear the gloves, see my dad catch the ball and save shots to stop teams scoring. For me it was love at first sight. What my dad and my family told me about life, not just football, is that hard workers can have great careers in whatever industry they choose.”

This Albania squad contains players born all over Europe, including in England, Italy and Germany, as the country’s diaspora grows.

“Every player that is coming from another country, you can see their style is different,” Strakosha says. “If we are clever enough we can steal [ideas] from each other and make the perfect combination in the team. We have a lot of young players but also old players, so we have the perfect mix.

“The only thing we need to do now is be mature enough and take it match by match to make our dream to go to the World Cup come true. But I think we have the right talent and with the staff and coach we have a good situation to bring together the styles from different countries to create a style of one team in Albania.”