June 4, 2003

London Free Press: Albanian Team Came to Play and Stayed

Albanian team came to play and stayed

Kathy Rumleski, Free Press Sports Reporter

It's been eight years since an Albanian youth soccer team arrived in Canada for the Henderson tournament, held every Labour Day weekend. The players didn't return home.

Scared, homesick and not able to speak English, the teens say they had no idea what life in Canada would bring them.

Most of the players on the team -- Partizania, a Red Army club from Tirana which was the European Cup under-17 champion for three years -- were 16 and 17 when they arrived in Canada.

Now 24 and 25, they have built lives for themselves in London, with their lives still centred around soccer.

"We love the game," said said Amarildo Topalli, one of the 10 players. "We grew up playing the game. I don't think we can ever give it up."

Gentian Buzali, Altin Ruci, Eris Tafaj, Gentjan Dervishi, Isa Bulku, Ermal Murataj and Erald Pope all play for London City of the Canadian Professional Soccer League

Ervin Ryta last played soccer with the Toronto Lynx of the A League but his mother died in Albania recently and he just returned to Canada after a trip to his native land.

Albi Mile also played with the Lynx and lives in Toronto.

Topalli used to play for City but after four knee operations, he isn't able to play the sport he loves.

Topalli says it was three years before he could watch his friends play soccer again.

Now Topalli is involved in the game through coaching.

He coaches Croatia in the Western Ontario Soccer League First Division and the London United women, who play in the Ontario Women's Soccer League South Region.

The players all applied for refugee status shortly after coming to London because of the troubled economy in Albania, the poor educational possibilities, military conscription and persecution their families were subjected to as supporters of the country's communist party.

Tafaj, who was 14 when he arrived in Canada, said that when he left Albania, the country was going through a transition from communism to democracy and there were riots.

"My parents said, 'Eris, it's time to look after your life.' I miss my parents so much and my brother."

Tafaj's younger brother is a professional soccer player in Albania.

Tafaj said some of his Albanian friends lost their lives during the riots. His parents just wanted him to be safe and have a chance at a better life.

The first few months in Canada were tough as the boys struggled to learn English and understand their new culture.

And there was the constant worry they would be forced to return to Albania.

It was about three years before they were accepted as refugees and another two years before they would become Canadian citizens.

Topalli said they had to grow up fast. "We were cooking ourselves and cleaning. It was a different country, colder weather. We didn't know if we were going back or staying -- that kind of pressure."

But they had a lot of help from Londoners. All of the boys were taken in by a family for the first month they were here.

They still stay in touch with them.

"On Christmas morning before I call my family, I call my Canadian family," said Topalli, who lived with Walter and Madonna McKenna.

With their families all in Albania, the players became like brothers. They also considered their coach, Luca Shaqiri and his wife Myzejen, as parents.

"He had his own kid -- and 10 of us. I give him a lot of credit," Topalli said. "We go for dinner with Luca. We're very, very close."

Ruci, the goalkeeper, said all the players are best friends and always will be.

They often get together for barbecues and parties -- and of course, playing soccer. "We try to stick together and play soccer together."

They were together last weekend for the wedding of Gentian Buzali and Joana Castelhano.

Buzali's parents weren't able to come from Albania for the event. They applied to the Canadian government five times for permission to come for the ceremony but were rejected.

Nine of the 10 Albanian players were able to attend the wedding. They made a video for his parents, with greetings from all the soccer gang.

Tafaj, who has just graduated, with the aid of soccer scholarship, from the University of Detroit with a degree in history and political science, is next on the list for wedding bells. He and Maria Stillitano are getting married at St. Peter's Basilica on June 21, then will travel to Albania for a reception June 29.

"The celebration back home will be overwhelming," Tafaj said.

Topalli and Dervishi will also travel to Albania to celebrate.

Tafaj is proud of his newly-earned degree. He's the first of the Albanians to get a university education. "The dream was to become a professional soccer player, but this was a dream, too -- finishing school, becoming somebody."

He plans to teach, and once he has a steady income, plans to travel to Albania once a year.

Most of the players have made the trek back to Albania but it's expensive and doesn't happen frequently.

Topalli doesn't think his parents will ever get the chance to visit him here, something that disappoints him because he would love to show them what his life is like. But there is no regret about leaving Albania with nothing but his soccer gear.

"It was a great decision," he said. "I'm proud of myself and I'm proud of the guys, too. Everybody turned successful. It wasn't a failure."

Copyright The London Free Press 2001,2002,2003

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