Sunderland?s new recruit aims to be a good ambassador for Albania
15 August 2009 09:42
Lorik Cana will start his Sunderland career against Bolton this afternoon, hoping to be an ambassador for Albania. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson met the tough-tackling midfielder and discussed his love of his homeland.
What about ethnic unrest, something that came to the worlds attention when Bosnia and Kosovos ethnic Albanians were attacked by the Serb majority during the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s
Or do pyramid schemes stick in the mind as a result of the 1997 financial crisis that saw a collapse of the government-backed financial system wipe £1.2bn off Albanias books and led to riots that cost an estimated 2,000 Albanians their lives
Either way, its unlikely that too many positive images dominate your thoughts. As Michael Palin observed of Albania in his book on The New Europe: Im later assured it means For Rent, but Im struck that the word Shitet appears on many of the buildings in Albania.
When even a former Python is mocking, it is surely time for an image change.
Albania is a small country, said Lorik Cana, skipper of the Albania national team, and Sunderlands £5m summer signing from French club Marseille. I think we are a small country with a great people, but I suppose I am a little bit biased.
We are a small country in the middle of Europe, but a lot of people dont really know much about Albania, and I dont think many people think of us when they think of European countries.
There are a lot of stories about Albania, and lots of them are not true. Hopefully, I can help present another side of the country to the people of England.
Canas pride in his nation is obvious, and is the result of a personally harrowing past.
Born in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in 1983, Cana was forced to flee his homeland in 1992 as civil war engulfed the southern Balkans.
He was only aged nine at the time, but remembers the panic that swept through the ethnically-mixed Kosovo, now a disputed territory on Serbias southern border, as Yugoslavia imploded along racial lines.
His father, Agim, was a former Albanian international, and with Bosnian Serbs committing genocide against Albanians in the neighbouring territory of Bosnia, the Cana family fled to the safety of Switzerland.
Shortly after, Lorik, already a promising youngster, joined a youth team at FC Lausanne Sport. A couple of years later, and he was changing countries again to move to France to join Paris St Germain.
He has gone on to make more than 200 appearances in Frances Ligue One, but his ties to Albania have never weakened.
Shunning offers to play for both France and Switzerland, Cana made his Albanian debut as a 19-year-old in 2003.
He has since become captain, and is the most recognisable face in Albania today. He is Tiranas David Beckham, a global ambassador who hopes to portray Albania in a more positive light than it has enjoyed in the recent past.
Football helps to change peoples thoughts, said Cana, whose peripatetic upbringing means he can converse freely in five different languages. If Albanians are able to succeed in football, people start to think of Albania for very positive reasons.
We dont have many top players in Europe. It is starting to change slightly, but I suppose when someone like me leaves Albania and achieves a degree of success abroad, it is a very big deal.
I have played in Paris and Marseille, and now in the Premier League, and I think people in Albania are proud about that.
I also think it helps people abroad gain some sort of knowledge about where Albania is and what it is about.
I can be someone who can spread the Albanian name. It is an important duty for me.
For the next four years, Cana will be performing that duty at the Stadium of Light.
Having captained Marseille in the Champions League last season, the 25-year-old was inundated with offers when he announced a desire to leave France this summer.
Everton offered the midfielder a passport to the Europa League, but with Sunderland boss Steve Bruce having made his intentions known as soon as he was appointed by the Black Cats, Cana was impressed by his new managers desire to secure his signature.
The first reason I came here was the championship, he said. The Premier League is the most beautiful competition in the world.
Even when you are in France, it seems as though more people are watching the Premier League than the French competition. If you are going to see a match that does not involve French teams, it is going to be the Premier League.
The same is true of my country. If you go to Albania, the Premier League is everywhere. People know all the players and all the clubs, that is why I was determined to come and play in England.
Then it was a case of choosing a club, and Sunderland were the first club to make the first steps to sign me. From a very early stage, they made it clear how much they wanted me, and that was very important.
I had contact with a lot of other clubs, particularly Everton, but none of them treated me like Sunderland did. Sunderland really wanted me all along, and as a traditional person, that is important to me.
As a result, the Black Cats have signed a combative midfielder who is already being touted as a future captain of the club.
As a tough-tackling ball winner, Cana would appear to be a perfect accompaniment to the equally committed Lee Cattermole. Play those two together this season, and the soft centre that undermined Sunderland on so many occasions last term will be conspicuous only by its absence.
I like to tackle and battle, said Cana, whose first actions upon arriving at Sunderland were to volunteer for community work and ask for a guided tour of Durham Cathedral. They are not my only qualities, but I think the coach brought me to Sunderland because he knew I could help the team.
Hopefully, I can give my experience and my game for the good of the club. I think I can do lots of things provided I give my best all the time. Its going to be difficult because there are many good teams in the league, but I think my game suits the Premier League. I am sure I can succeed here.
And if he does, he may one day return to Albania as the proud wearer of a Sunderland shirt.
Whenever I speak to people back at home, they tell me that Sunderland have four or five million more fans in Albania now, he said. The whole country is getting ready to watch Sunderlands games.
Maybe one day I can go back to Albania and play with Sunderland. I think Europe can be a goal for this club eventually. Why not
I think the first goal is to finish in the top ten. It is a good goal for us in our first season. There is a new coach with new players and new ideas. That is something really positive, but it means it is not always easy to have good results in the first year. If we can finish in the top ten we will have done well.