Belfast Telegraph

Welcome to Tirana, a road to nowhere

By Paul Ferguson

It's a battle of survival on the streets of Tirana.There are no rules or system. Albanians have a mind of their own.

After years of living without the motorcar — Northern Ireland visited in 1982 horse and carts were the only transport available — it suddenly seems every person in the city has a vehicle or something resembling a car.

And it’s utter chaos.

How we managed to make it from the airport to the hotel without an accident is a mystery.

These Tirana roads make the frightening traffic around the Arc de Triumph look a mini roundabout.

Full of pot holes and cracks, 300,000 cars a day pound the tarmac here

There are traffic lights but these are largely ignored while the lanes have no relevance — nobody ever stays within them.

This means the noise of a car horn is incessant all day long as the Tirana dodgems make their way around the city.

Yellow New York style cabs are evident but that’s where the similarities with the Big Apple end.

Walk around this dull city and you take your life into your own hands when it comes to crossing roads — step out only with ultra caution.

But there’s nothing really to see. Tirana is a sad and ugly place that is still going to take many years to modernise.

The men are menacing while the women sullen. An angry city fighting back after years of communist rule and unrest.

Aging infrastructure and dilapidated buildings dominate the large areas while construction is taking place but painfully slow. Landmarks look awful.

Remember the strip in Newcastle, Co Down before major refurbishment or Queen’s Parade in Bangor?

That is Tirana throughout.

A city in transition, desperately hoping to rebuild and move into the 21st century.

It has been left to rot for too long.

But for former Northern Ireland international John O’Neill, out here in a working capacity for BBC Sport, has noticed dramatic changes. He was part of Billy Bingham’s side that drew 0-0 with Albania in Tirana 28 years ago.

“This is Las Vegas, compared to when I was last here,” after a drive though the Albanian capital.

Bars and restaurants are sparse — an indication of the high poverty Albania as a whole still suffers.

The local beer called Ottakri is light, pleasant and refreshing. You could also try Bitburger, Zipfer and Kriko Krombacher.

You’ll pay around 150 Lek, the currency in Albania, for a beer which is £1. Foreign bottled beers such as Heineken, Tuborg and Becks cost that little more at 200 Lek. Spirits and wine start at 240 Lek.

A meal, including steak and wine, at one of the few grand hotels in the city will only set you back 3000 Lek (£20).

Eighty passionate Northern Ireland fans are expected to be in attendance at the Qemal Stafa Stadium tonight and as a kind gesture from the Irish FA for their loyal support, Northern Ireland’s governing body are providing them with complimentary tickets for the game.

Tirana has become renowned as a difficult place to secure victory. Sweden and Denmark are just two European heavyweights who have struggled. Hardly surprising with the city so intimidating.

The match tonight may prove the easy part. Reaching the airport safely after another trip through the hectic traffic of Tirana is the greatest challenge

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