Albania. Isolated and insular, as it was, the country was a mystery, but still some speculations about its general life can be suggested. During the 1980s things were not going so good. After 1980 a trend was detected – clubs folding during or after a season. Granted, they were low level clubs, but still this was new – in the Communist countries clubs practically belonged to the state: they were attached to industrial firms, a guarantee they were always funded. Clubs folding for economic reasons meant money were getting short in general. This went along with increasing violence, which suggested wider dissatisfaction of the population, making tiny cracks in the iron state control. This season 4 teams folded during the season because of financial difficulties and one right after the end of the season. Granted, all were Third Division clubs, but no such things were happening in the previous decades. Yet, the shaky state of clubs went along with improved football – a new talented generation came in, perhaps the most talented one in the history of Albanian football. Those players were still too young, not in full bloom, but their presence was noticed. However, the country is small, the establishment strong, so no massive change happened or even possible: the top league was pretty much the same as ever, no new club came from the lower levels to challenge the status quo.
Apollonia (Fier) won the Second Division with 38 points, and
Shkendia (Tirana) finished 2nd with 32 points. Both teams were relegated together in 1979-80 and now were returning together to the top league.
First Division had a dominant leader and hopeless outsider, so at least at the very top and bottom things were settled early in the championship. Skenderbeu (Korce) was last with 15 points. Six teams, the champion of the previous season, Labinoti (Elbasan) among them, struggled to avoid the the second relegation spot. Besa (Kavaje) at the end was relegated, finishing with 22 points and thus 13th. Just as a novelty, the only city apart of Tirana, represented by 2 teams in the top league, managed to keep its distinction: there was a strong possibility Lushnje to be not on the top league map at all, but Traktori and Beselidhja survived and shoulder to shoulder too – both teams finished at the top of the endangered group of teams with 24 points each – Traktori 8th and Beselidhja 9th.
Information about Albania football is scarce and not very reliable even now, but if not from this season, at least this photo of Partizani (Tirana) is from the period 1984-86. Not a great moment of Partizani’s history – they were not a title contenders, fighting for 3rd place and finishing 4th at the end with 29 points. Vllaznia (Shkoder) bested them with better goal-difference and took the bronze medals.
Dinamo (Tirana) was securely 2nd with 33 points.
17 Nentori (Tirana) comfortably dominated the championship – they lost just 2 games, tied 9, and won 15, which provided the 39 points. As with Partizani, one cannot be sure the team picture is from this season – at least is from the same time period.
The Cup final opposed teams of same strength – Partizani (4th) and Flamurtari (Vlore) (5th in the championship). Of course, the bets were on Partizani, but it was to be difficult final and it was. Favoured Partizani lost 1-2.
Flamurtari was one of the most stable clubs in Albania, a constant member of First Division, but so far without any success. So it was more than grand local achievement – not only Flamurtari won its first trophy, but also became the third provincial club to win the Cup (Vllaznia and Labinoti did it before them). If championships are added, Flamurtari were the 4th provincial club winning anything in the whole history of Albanian football. The total dominance of Tirana was no longer so absolute after 1977 – Vllaznia and Labinoti won the championships in 1977-78, 1982-83, and 1983-84; Vllaznia won the Cup in 1978-79 and 1980-81, now Flamurtari. The provincial challenge was not going to disappear even if a total change of guard was unlikely.
Yet, this challenge was facing strong opposition, supported heavily by the political system: the case of Labinoti brings speculative questioning and doubts. Labinoti barely escaped relegation right after they won the championship. Practically, they popped up from nowhere the previous season and immediately sunk back to obscurity. Historically, Labinoti was insignificant club, dwelling in the lower half of the league. Their sudden climb to success, followed by immediate slump to the usual performance appears suspect: surprise winners usually maintain a momentum for a few years. They were not able to repeat their success, of course, but at least stay near the top for awhile. Take Zarya (Voroshilovgrad), the USSR champions of 1972, for example – came out of the blue, did not have a team able to keep them on top again, but their way down took almost a ten years. Immediately after 1972 they were mainly competitive enough to stay among the top 5, slowly getting down. Flamurtari came out of the blue and immediately went down. So… it could have been the typical case of small club – the big sharks immediately swallowing its good players, leaving an empty carcass. In a Communist country, such approach was typical, much more drastic than among professional clubs in the West. But it could have been a case of opportunistic games under the table when no one was watching. That was what Zarya did in 1972, fixing games with lowly teams – nobody expected that, the eyes were fixed on the big clubs, and lowly Zarya got away with murder. At the end, it came to a question of rather different import: suspicion came too late in the season, there was no longer way to overcome Zarya and to investigate and punish would mean big wound on shiny pride of the system, which claimed it was the best, the most fare and honest in the world. So, Zarya was kept champions and the truth was disclosed to the public only after 1990. Something similar may have been the case of Labinoti’s victory – the big clubs a bit shaky, and may be because of that more involved with scheming between themselves, nobody paying attention to historically insignificant provincials, who saw the opportunity, bought a game here, a game there, from clubs of the same ilk, and when they were finally seen as a danger, it was too late. After the season may be Party functionaries warned the local schemers not to do such antics again, or there will be harsh punishment, some people were shuffled around, may be even demoted, good players taken away, and everything went back to normal. All done behind closed doors, nothing ever made public, no official penalties directly related to football. May be some rumors, but no hard evidence. Then years go by and even if some late investigation is done, there is not a single club in the world to confess they became champions by illegal means some 10 or 15 years ago. Football Federations are also very reluctant to distribute penalties for so distant deeds and change old final tables – if not for any other reasons, at least because the old season cannot be replayed. No more than a single team can be punished retroactively, but in bribery scandals the number of involved is never a single one. What can be done retroactively is very limited – a trophy can be taken away and no more. But the guilty club counts it, keeps it in the club history, adding a complain to it and in the minds of supporters it becomes only victimization. Labinoti’s case is suspect, but no more than that – it could have been a honest win, it could have been illegal scheming, it could have been a quick robbery of the best players, which the small club was unable to replace and thus to keep position in the next season, it could have been Tirana clubs entangled in their own scheming against each other, which helped unintentionally Labinoti. It could have been even a different scheme – Labinoti, the rogue champion, to be prevented from winning again. A surprise winner usually is not very strong team, but once bringing attention to itself, everybody play harder against it the next year. Add referees instructed to bring them down and the slump is guaranteed. There are traditional problems with surprise winners: they have short and tied teams, driven more by enthusiasm than ability; have limited tactical approach, which is quickly learned by others and relatively easy to oppose; they have little money, so are unable to add talent to their original squad. Take away a player or two from the regular team and the whole thing collapses. Nothing new about it, happened so many times. Yet, so sudden rise and drop is suspect. Compared to Labinoti, Flamurtari is completely different story – they stayed strong after winning the Cup.