these women who write the history of Albanian football

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Emanuela Rusta defied all the clichés to become, by the sheer force of her determination, the first woman to referee in the Albanian Championship, a feat in the Balkan country where ancestral patriarchy is beginning to give way.

“You have to fight to be accepted,” the 29-year-old referee, a FIFA international since 2019, told AFP. “You have to smash the glass ceiling”.

In Albania, football is a national passion, but its female version is in its infancy, with barely two decades of existence: the Albanian Federation (FFA) lists only 2,000 women among its licensees, for 22,000 men.

In the morning, Emanuela Rusta works as a PE teacher at the high school in Elbasan, her hometown in the center of a country where it is difficult to live solely from sport. In the afternoon, she trains with male colleagues.

“To make good decisions, you need to know the rules perfectly, but also have excellent physical condition and a great ability to concentrate,” explains the young woman who lives with her mother in a small apartment filled with medals testifying to her success.

It’s not easy to break the shackles of gender stereotypes when the local media is making headlines about “the sexy referee who turns up the heat”.

In this country of 2.8 million inhabitants, long cut off from openness to the world by a communist dictatorship, many women are kept in a role of subjection and economic dependence.

– “I suffered” –

But, in recent years, the rights of women, especially the most educated, have been progressing. They are more numerous in positions of responsibility, magistrates, university rectors, ministers: the Albanian government is thus made up of 70% women.

Refereeing “is not a question of gender, but of skill”, insists Emanuela Rusta, who has taken charge of a dozen international matches in Europe.

His ambition is to referee matches of the men’s World Cup as the French Stéphanie Frappart recently did, a first for a referee, in Qatar.

In the meantime, she hopes to find herself at the whistle for the Albanian football derby still marred by tensions between Tirana and Partizani.

While derogatory remarks sometimes burst from the bleachers, some believe that women are better equipped to keep a cool head: “A female referee eases tensions”, judges Andi Vrecani, an Albanian football observer. “She creates a climate of trust because she has more distance”.

The women’s team of Vllaznia, in Shkodra (north), was born in 2009, but they have already won the title of champion of Albania and faced Chelsea, Real Madrid and PSG in the group stage of the Champions League 2022-23.

“The key to success lies with these girls” who have “succeeded in breaking the (…) prejudice that football is only a male sport,” said club president Lazër Matija.

Among the Vllaznia players, Megi Doçi. Originally from a very poor village in northern Albania, the 26-year-old striker took up football against her mother’s wishes, before leaving at the age of 12 for Tirana to progress in her passion. .

Things weren’t easy, she admits: “I fell, I suffered, I cried, I had to swallow back my tears but, each time, I chose to get up and recover. beat”.

– “A matter of the heart” –

Her ambition doesn’t stop there: she dreams of playing for Bayern Munich or Real Madrid.

She trains four hours a day with men. “It’s a challenge, we feel the weight of this mentality always present, because they are not used to seeing a girl play”, she confides.

Few also believe that a player can be a mother, like Ardiola Raxhimi, 24, the goalkeeper of Vllaznia.

who now runs a hair salon for men.

Armand Duka assures that “women’s football is the priority” of the FFA which he chairs: “A few years ago, women’s football was almost a taboo because it was considered a male sport. We won this battle” .

But he recognizes that parity is not for tomorrow: the players receive a salary of 400 euros, half less than the men, and of the 17 million euros of the budget of the FFA, only 3.4 million go to the teams. feminine.

“I never wanted to choose between my career and my personal life, I always wanted to be happy in both”, explains this mother of a two-year-old boy she had with Muhamet, a former player

“Football is not a matter of money, but of love and heart”, launches however Megi Doçi.

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