Air Albania, the ‘crippled’ stadium for the athletes

For more than 70 years since its construction, Qemal Stafa Stadium has served as the main stadium in Albania, the home of the Albanian National Team, as well as the home of athletics competitions and other events. Today, this stadium has changed not only the name, but also its appearance. It was hailed as a stadium that meets all European standards, opening a new page for sports in Albania. A colossal investment worth € 85 million, Air Albania is the most modern stadium in the country.

Considered the “Wembley of the Balkans”, it has a capacity of 22,500 seats, a 112-meter-high tower (24 floors), which today is the tallest tower in Albania, a shopping center, offices, wedding venues, etc. But in this vast space there seems to be something missing from the ruins left behind.  The athletic track!!!

Qemal Stafa Stadium was an Olympic stadium with a capacity of 20,000 seats. Built during the years of fascist occupation and inaugurated in 1946, the Qemal Stafa stadium met the conditions for many sports, in addition to football. It had gyms for weightlifters, boxers, and athletic tracks used by athletes. When it was first built, it was conceived as the Tirana Olympic Stadium, because at that time Albanians had high results in athletics in the Balkans and Europe.

Albania has achieved the highest results in sports historically, especially in recent years in athletics and weightlifting. These athletes had a place where they trained together until 2015, in the capital, in abysmal conditions not of the highest level, but at least it was something. Where do they train today?

According to the Ministry of Education and Sports, and according to law 79/2017 “On Sports”, Albania is represented in international activities for sports of athletics, weightlifting and martial arts with “National Champions” athletes according to the respective categories. Athletics, in European and world activities, but also in the Balkans, takes place in stadiums licensed by the World Federation, whether open or closed.

If the national team plays in the stadium “Air Albania” 5 matches a year plus 4 derby matches, then 80 million Euros were spent for 9 matches a year?!

What were the consequences of removing the running track? Why was it removed? What was promised to weightlifters and athletes? What have they been offered?

While Tirana is the only capital in the world without an athletic track, where does Luiza Gega train, together with the team? A champion like Gega has no athletic track.

Even to this day there is no project to build a new runway.

Luiza trains at the stadium of Elbasan, the only stadium in Albania certified by the World Athletics Federation and that meets all the conditions. Which means only race results recorded in this stadium are recognized.

“I often go to train in Elbasan when I am in Tirana but I’m very tired because I train twice a day, back and forth, then going out again to train is really a lot of fatigue,” says Gega. I started training in Korça in May, I sleep in Dardhë and I do the training at the Skëndërbeu stadium”.

Infrastructure does not help this sport so the athlete is forced to move back and forth systemativally.

Taulant Stërmasi, national coach of athletics for 20 years, also Luiza Gegas coach, shares the same concern.

According to Taulant: In 2013, 75% of the Qemal Stafa national stadium became the property of the AFF (Albanian Football Federation), with the largest burden of spending on the new stadium.

“When Edi Rama became prime minister, Armando Duka proposed that the athletic track of the stadium be removed for a cheaper cost. And so, the new stadium does not have an athletic track. The project of the new stadium (Air Albania) was kept hidden, it was not shown because in fact the athletic track and the gyms in the indoor facilities for various sports were actually removed,” says Stërmasi.

In 2013, Mr. Rama gathered the best Albanian athletes among them Daniel Godelli, Luiza Gega and promised them that he had a project for the construction of an Olympic park for athletics, weightlifting and many other sports. However, the Olympic Park at the former Dinamo Complex only resulted in two gyms with parquet for basketball and volleyball.

In 2016, the World Athletics President (IAAF) Sebastian Coe met Prime Minister Rama in Tirana, the latter promising to build an athletic track at the Selman Stërmasi Stadium in the capital. But again, that did not happen.

Taulant, together with the team, trains at the lake district in Tirana, in Durrës.

But apart from Gega, many athletes like Briken Çala, Klevis Çelaj and many others do not benefit from any space to train inside this stadium.

Klevis Çelaj, although having won the first prize in boxing matches, is an athlete who trains in difficult and inadequate conditions for a boxer. In an interview with him, he said that economic conditions do not allow him to go to train in a private gym and that boxing is a sport that needs work and dedication and the facilities where he trains are nature and a boxing bag that he has privately acquired and fixed through secondary means.

“If the Air Albania stadium had a gym to train in, it would be a great opportunity to develop my passion and talent, boxing. Although many other athletes have asked for it, nothing has been done, “he said

Although having European standards, the only national stadium offers nothing for athletes other than football, this makes them train in foreign countries and not in Albania.

Various sources inform us that the first stadium, Qemal Stafa, had a capacity of 20,000 benches, while Air Albania was designed with 22,500 benches, thus removing the running track. But are there really 22,500 benches in the stadium? By removing the running track and removing gyms for other sports, such as boxing, weightlifting, javelin throwing.

We have sent requests for information to the Ministry of Education and Sports, the Municipality of Tirana and the Albanian Football Federation to inquire about the facilities of athletic training, weightlifting, boxing and other sports, which have been integral parts of the Qemal Stafal stadium, if they will be rebuilt in the new complex, or elsewhere. Until the moment of the publication of this article, a response from these institutions is missing.

At the beginning of the project, it was announced that 60 million Euros would be spent for the construction of the stadium only for the football track and the tribune, so the running track was not part of the project, later after the construction of the stadium began 80 million Euros were spent on the project. A ghost project that is nowhere to be found because they do not want to get back into the debate.

In the eyes of an architect, the new stadium has not retained its historical memory. Qemal Stafa’s façade was a national monument of the second category, which was quickly removed and restored as it only happens in Albania. Construction technology is a novelty, but the parking facilities of the stadium are below standards. Access is poor, because normally stadiums are not built inside the city, but in its outskirts. “I can only say that his concept is superficial and does not come as a result of an analytical process. In conclusion, apart from the name, I can say that as an Albanian I does not look so bad. ” he says.

History, architecture, culture are what a nation is most remembered for. For athletes, we just have to wait for a project, but as citizens we have to get used to things that don’t look that bad.