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'The Guardian': Nedim Bajrami, the Euro 2024 record holder who went to court to play for Albania

'The Guardian': Nedim Bajrami, the Euro 2024 record holder who went to

Twenty-three seconds had passed when Federico Dimarco made a terrible mess of a throw-in down Italy's left, targeting Alessandro Bastoni in his own area. The stick remained frozen as a red Albanian flame appeared in front of him, intercepted the ball and fired into the top corner.

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma looked around like a man who had just opened a taxi door only for someone else to jump in and speed away. This was not how it was supposed to go.

Maybe the Italians should know. After all, the scorer of the goal that broke the record for the fastest in the history of the European Championship plays in Italy. But of all the Serie A stars in Germany this summer, Nedim Bajrami was perhaps not among those predicted to set records.

"To score for Albania in a European championship has been a dream for me since I was a child", said Bajrami after the match. "I worked hard for it."

He doesn't joke. Bajrami is one of 19 players in Albania's Euro 2024 squad who were born abroad, but few have gone through such an arduous process to earn their spots.

In fact, he had to go to court to be allowed to play for the country.

Bajrami was born and raised in Switzerland - in Zurich, specifically - to ethnic Albanian parents. He joined his local side, Grasshoppers, and rose through the ranks, making his debut in 2017.

He also earned an international call-up to Switzerland's youth teams, playing for them at every level from under-15s to under-21s. He even captained them on several occasions, including in an under-19 international against a German side featuring Kai Havertz, now of Arsenal.

But while this usually represented a school route for the Swiss senior team, there was always something that pulled Bajram in a different direction.

It all started when Edy Reja, the Italian who coached the Albanian national team from 2019 to 2022, approached Bajram about changing allegiance in 2021. As such, he turned down a call-up to Switzerland's U-21 squad for the European Championship in that year. .

"We tried to convince Bajram to continue playing for Switzerland," said Mauro Lustrinelli, then Switzerland U-21 coach. "But he told us that his heart beats for Albania. For us in the national team, identification is one of the main values, so we had no choice but to let him go."

The problem was that, at that time, Bajrami did not actually have Albanian citizenship. But apart from all the trappings of wealth, fame and adulation, one of the perks of being a footballer is that when a bureaucratic process is in the national interest, you can go straight to the top.

Ilir Meta, then president of Albania, endorsed Bajram as an Albanian (along with then-Fulham youngster Adrion Pajaziti) in March 2021, theoretically easing his path to the national team.

But even a presidential decree was not enough to convince FIFA. Despite relaxing rules around players wanting to switch national allegiances, the sticking point in Bajram's case was that, while he clearly had family ties to Albania, he did not have formal dual citizenship at the time he played for the Swiss youth teams. Technically, at least according to FIFA, he had to have an Albanian passport from an early age to qualify.

They rejected his request to transfer, then also rejected his appeal, partly because he had played four times for Switzerland's under-21 team after turning 21. So the player took his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, essentially claiming that FIFA was being unnecessarily prescriptive in how its rules were applied.

Bajrami and the Albanian federation cited 'Article Nine of the Rules Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes', which basically states that a player can apply once to change allegiance, provided they have citizenship for the country of new and that they have not played in a highly competitive game for the old country. The argument was that FIFA's initial rulings in the Bayram case were too strict an interpretation of that statute.

And CAS agreed: they ruled in favor of Bajram and Albania on 30 August 2021, basing their decision largely on the fact that he had only represented Switzerland at youth level. Reja wasted little time in calling up his new recruit and Bajrami made his debut in a World Cup qualifier against Hungary a week later.

"I decided to play for Albania after listening to my heart", said Bajrami after making the decision.

The fact that Bajrami scored such an outstanding and, indeed, historic goal is perhaps not a big surprise. Even his staunchest advocates would struggle to argue that he is a consistent player, but he is a player for a big occasion. He scored a screamer against the Czech Republic in the qualifiers, spinning around 30 yards from goal and hammering into the top corner. This was the equalizer in the 1-1 draw and helped Albania secure first place in the qualification group.

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