Three loud peals of the referee’s whistle rang out across the Air Albania Stadium and the substitutes of KF Teuta poured onto the pitch to greet their playing counterparts. For the club from the Mediterranean coastal city of Durres, a 15-year wait for a fourth Kupa e Shqiperise was over.
For their opponents, there was only regret: for the second year in a row, KF Tirana’s season had ended in defeat in the Cup final. Tirona are the winningest club in Albanian football, and had hoped to mark their centenary year with another memorable triumph. It was not to be, however; they would have to be content with simply winning the league.
It was a disappointment that was not received well. Half the Tirana squad failed to show up to receive their runners-up medals, and in the dressing room there was an altercation involving at least three players. The club is a “difficult environment”, according to midfielder Edon Hasani, one in which failure is not tolerated. The pressure to perform is enormous, and no one knows this better than manager Ndubuisi Egbo.
Egbo will not have approved of the ructions afterwards, but secretly he must have been pleased to see his team take losing as badly as they did. A self-confessed “winner” who wants to “win always, even (when) playing cards”, one of his biggest successes since taking the top job with Tirana has been bringing back the mindset of domination that characterized the club – which he represented between 2001 and 2004 – during his playing days.
Well, that and winning Tirona a first Kategoria Superiore title in 11 years. Victory in the Cup would have secured only the club’s fourth-ever double, and further consolidated his place in the KF Tirana pantheon for many years to come. Egbo is not egotistical, but he is keenly aware of the heft of history: to motivate his players during the title pursuit, he told them their names would be written in gold for all of time.
His own name is now up in lights too: as the first African to win a top-flight league title in Europe, Egbo is a ‘special one’, much like Jose Mourinho, a coach he considers one of the best in the world.
“He’s the kind of coach that can go to any team,” the 47-year-old tells The SuperSub. “He doesn’t care about the kind of player they have, he goes there to try to take maximum 100% from every member of the team that he has. And that’s what exactly I and my staff tried to do here.”
For all their history, KF Tirana were not in a good place when Egbo took charge. In fact, they had not been in a good place for years: in 2017, they suffered their first-ever relegation from the top-flight, and even though they came straight back up, they came within five points of going down again the following season.
As goalkeeping coach and assistant manager, the former Nigeria international had been present through it all, and witnessed first-hand the descent into obscurity of a once-proud club. In December 2019, with the club winless in four matches, he was told to step in on a three-game basis following the sacking of Julian Ahmataj. It was not his first rodeo in the manager’s seat: in 2015 for instance, he had taken over following the sacking of club legend Shkelqim Muca, and done a creditable enough job steadying the ship that he was asked to take over permanently. Egbo declined: he did not feel ready at the time.
The challenge was no less daunting four years on, but he came through those three matches with nine points, and opted to remain in charge when asked once again. “He (club president Refik Halili) saw what I did in my other team,” – Egbo had coached modest Bylis Ballsh before joining KF Tirana – “and that is why he always said to me ‘I know that you will be a good coach because I saw what you did with the other team, how they played, and that is why I took you here.’ I accepted and now, the rest is history.”
Crucially, the winning habit did not dissipate: it took until Egbo’s 18th match in charge for him to taste defeat for the first time. By that point, they were top of the table, quite the turnaround for a team that had been third from bottom when he took charge.
“There were many factors, many things we did,” he says. “(Addressing the) mentality was part of it. The managerial side was also part of it. We tried to take the maximum from the players that we have, and then we tried to put them in the right positions to give confidence to those we believe can be in the game.
“We removed some players that were not playing well, and those who were always creating problems in the team. The team started taking shape and then the winning team continued to play.”
From that point on, success simply fed on itself, creating a virtuous cycle.
However, convincing those who saw their playing time suddenly slashed was another challenge that needed to be surmounted. Hasani was one of such player; previously a lynchpin, he suffered a serious injury and, upon recovery, found himself relegated to the bench. There is also the potentially thorny situation of having the club president’s son Grent cooling his heels with the substitutes.
It is a testament to Egbo’s communication skills that his selection decisions have been accepted without rancour. “If a player won’t play, I take him aside and explain to him why, and also why someone else will play instead of him. But, at the end of the day, the best way to manage this is to keep winning. Everyone contributes because we are able to convince them with our success.”
That one-on-one approach would not be effective without a solid grasp of the language, as well as an understanding of the Albanian psyche. Egbo, who has been living in Albania for close to a decade, illustrates just how important this is for coaches.
“One of the factors that helped me to succeed is [the fact that] I know the culture. I’m one of them – a citizen of the country – I can speak the language fluently, so it makes it very much easier for me.
“When you are a foreigner and you speak your language, then they need to translate. It makes it more difficult for you to do your job perfectly because when you are the one explaining to the players, you explain directly what you want and then they can understand it immediately. When it goes through another, it can be misinterpreted. What you could have explained in a second, you need about five seconds to explain. Football is time and space; you have a fraction of a second to make a decision and if someone has to translate to you, you lose the time and space and it’s finished.”
It is on this premise that Egbo hangs his strongest argument for the Nigeria national team to be entrusted to Nigerian coaches. “I’ve said in many interviews that it’s high time we started giving (chances to) our own people, who know the culture and the language. After all, the late Stephen Keshi was the last coach that won the Africa Nations Cups for Nigeria.”
There is a certain irony then to the fact that his strongest run with the Super Eagles as a player came with a foreign coach in charge.
Dutchman Thijs Libregts, who was appointed following the debacle of the 1998 World Cup, took a shine to Egbo, and installed him as first-choice national team goalkeeper. At the time, Egbo was playing at Egyptian club Al Masry, with whom he would win the 1998 Egyptian FA Cup. He started two qualifiers for the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations (before CAF awarded co-hosting rights to Nigeria and Ghana): a 2-0 win over Burundi in Abeokuta, and a 1-1 draw against Senegal in Dakar.
However, Libregts left the position soon after, and Jo Bonfrere took charge. The 1996 Olympics-winning coach favoured the more experienced Ike Shorunmu, and that meant Egbo mostly played second fiddle on the international stage. He featured thrice in the qualifying series for the 2002 World Cup, but after being in goal for the damaging 2-1 defeat to Liberia in Monrovia, he never started another game for Nigeria.
Egbo says he would have liked to play more, but insists there are no regrets. “Every player would want to play more for his country, but if you get the opportunity to serve your country once or twice or four or ten times, I’m satisfied. In a country of 200 million, it’s a milestone.
“During my time, we had very good goalkeepers that were playing in some of the biggest teams in Europe, while I was in Egypt. Ike Shorunmu was playing in Switzerland and after that he went to Turkey so… Willy Opara made his name already in South Africa, winning the Africa Champions League with Orlando Pirates. I didn’t have that.”
That perhaps informed his decision to leave Al Masry after three years for Albania, a country he admits he has “never heard of”. However, the profile of the league back in 2001 was even weaker than it is now, and going there may have actually harmed his chances with the national team.
Not even the presence in the Super Eagles technical crew of former international Joe Erico, a coach he cites as a major influence on his development and coaching ideology, could arrest the slide. The two first linked up when a 21-year-old Egbo moved from Enugu club NITEL Vasco da Gama to NITEL FC Lagos.
“He (Erico) did not only teach us the tactical aspect of football, but also taught us how to survive in life, to be a human being first of all: good character, don’t go out too much at night, because football needs a lot of sacrifice. You have to sacrifice something to gain something. A player going to the nightclub to smoke or drink or womanize—it’s very difficult to make it.
“The experiences that I garnered from him and Christian Chukwu (who Egbo refers to as his “godfather in football”) and Lawrence Akpokona while I was at Julius Berger are some of the things that helped me. From then on, I had the passion that when I finished with my football career, I would like to go into coaching to pass on the experiences that I garnered while playing.”
One of his most memorable and formative experiences? Playing at the famous Onikan Stadium, the home of Julius Berger Football Club.
“We used to say if you play in Lagos, in Onikan Stadium, there is no stadium in the world you cannot play, because the kind of massive tension that was there when you played helped prepare you.
“When I went outside to play in Egypt, and coming here to Albania, I came in and after one week I played my first game and everyone was saying, ‘How come this guy could play like he’s been here 2 or 3 years?’ So, those are the things that helped, because we were taught back home.”
Egbo is very much a coach moulded by his experiences of playing back in Nigeria and so, despite living in Albania, he keeps a close eye on the state of affairs in Nigerian football. He is concerned by the degree of uncertainty in the national team’s goalkeeping ranks. Since the retirements of Vincent Enyeama and Carl Ikeme, there has been a parade of different candidates, but none has thoroughly convinced. At the 2018 World Cup, newcomer Francis Uzoho started in goal, but by the Africa Cup of Nations the following year, he was third in the pecking order.
In Egbo’s mind, it is time for Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr to make a decision and back his horse to the hilt.
“There is no consistency, that’s the problem Nigeria is having now. That’s why you see we keep on changing from one goalkeeper to the other. You just have to give one an opportunity and give him the confidence and support to continue playing. He is bound to make some mistakes, but if you support him fully, then he can make it.”
But what if the problem is that the quality simply isn’t there? “Well, (the dearth of talent) is not only on the goalkeeping side, but also the playing (outfield) side,” he concedes.
“Nowadays it’s difficult to count three, four or five players in our national team that can show class. During our time, you could count more than 12, 14 players in the team that, when opponents heard they were going to play against the Super Eagles, they were gripped by fear. They’d already lose the game before it started.
“A lot of players now lack the discipline, the concentration, the determination. They lack the personality and mentality needed, because there’s a difference between playing for your clubside and playing for your national team.
“They’re two completely different things: you need a stronger personality to play for your country because you’re representing a whole nation, not just your family. Any mistake you make there… it’s a huge task playing for the national team, and if you don’t have that personality, then it’s difficult to make it.
“I want our national team to go back to that heyday that any country going to play against Nigeria, they’d be shaking in their pants before going onto the pitch.”
Who better to execute the vision than the one who sets it forth? Would he be willing to personally come on board and midwife this change if called upon?
Egbo maintains he is receptive to the idea if there is an opening, but stresses his respect for the incumbent and instead calls for Nigerians to back Rohr to succeed.
“Right now we have the coach of the national team, and I believe that all Nigerians and everyone should put hands on deck to help him to see if he can achieve the desired results because, at the end of the day, it’s Nigeria that wins. We just need to put our hands on deck to try to support him to be able to achieve the aim for the country.”
If or when that day comes, Nigeria will get a coach who describes himself as being “from the Italian school”.
There is an unmistakeable Italian influence in Albanian coaching, unsurprising as the two nations share a maritime border. When Shqiponjat qualified for the European Championships in 2016, their first appearance in a major tournament, they did so with former Torino manager Giovanni De Biasi in charge. Current national team manager Edoardo Reja is also Italian.
Albania’s first UEFA Pro Licence course (the highest certification for football coaching in Europe) took place only seven years ago. In March 2013, coaches of the national teams and top-flight clubs went to Florence to receive a lecture from then Fiorentina manager Vincenzo Montella, and then back home they observed national team coach Giovanni De Biasi as he prepared the team for a World Cup qualifier against Norway.
“During our coaching courses, they sent Italian coaches to come give us the courses from Coverciano (the headquarters of the FIGC that houses the world-renowned coaching school),” Egbo says. “We had coaches that have coached the likes of (Antonio) Conte, (Roberto) Mancini. We learnt a lot from them.
“Albanian football is a mixture of Italian football and power. There are more tactical games; some teams, when they score one goal, the game is over. Those are the things that you have to play here, unlike in many countries in Africa where you have more of entertainment football and power, just like the Brazilian style. But the Brazilian style is more focused on winning, not only entertainment.
“Of course, at the end of the day, the result is what matters. Football is not much entertainment anymore, because it’s business. Now nobody wants too much entertainment. So you have to do the entertainment part, but also think of winning the game.
“You have a lot of good coaches here. When you learn from the best, of course you have to improve.”
In explaining his coaching ideas, Egbo speaks highly of the level of football development in Albania, as well as the availability of cutting-edge tools to help managers succeed.
“We have possibilities of many things to use. In the league, we use the Wyscout match analysis platform to analyse our games and to analyze the opponents, so you have everything set, ready to help you in achieving your set results. There are still many things to improve, but it’s far better than what we have in some African countries.”
So when he analyses his own team’s performances, what is he looking out for?
“When you make a team, you have to make it the way you want to play,” he explains. “Do you want fast players, players that can hold the ball? Do you want to play long thrusts? That means you have to play with a lone striker, and it has to be a tall player. So it depends on what tactic or system you’re going to play.
“If you want to play long then you have to base your team around that lone striker, and if you want to play with double strikers, if you’re playing 4-4-2, it’s a different way and you have to look for players that can do that, and try to teach them how to do it.”
For Egbo at KF Tirana, the system is based around a lone striker: former Liverpool Academy player and England under-20 international Michael Ngoo. The physically imposing (6ft 6in) centre-forward, who played at youth level with Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, powers headers goalward, poaches inside the six-yard box and acts as a pivot in attack to stitch the team’s attacking play together.
Ngoo, who has a Nigerian mother, finished the season with 13 goals and 15 assists for the club, but is now out of contract and is yet to make a decision on a renewal. The supporting cast is not shabby either: Brazilian Elton Cale has been a major beneficiary of Ngoo’s wall passes and lay-offs, Agustin Torassa has pitched in with goals from midfield, and Ghanaian winger Winful Cobbinah is a livewire on the right. “Sometimes when I watch Cobbinah, I wonder why this level of player is still in Albania,” Egbo admits. “I try to encourage him to show his abilities as much as possible.”
It’s not all about expressionism, however. There is a lot of grit – KF Tirana matches are frequently stop-start, dappled with fouls, and they give as good as they get – as well as a healthy dose of humility, which stands them in good stead. Ultimately, these qualities carried them over the line in their title chase.
“That is one of the things that gave us the championship. When you play, especially, the teams in the relegation zone, who are down, they are the most difficult teams to play. When a team plays parking the bus behind, then it’s difficult to play against such a team because they tend to use the counterattack. But when you play the teams in the top (half), they play open football.
“So when playing teams in the bottom half, we approached them with maximum respect and motivation, and we won all. The team in second (Kukesi finished four points off the top) lost points against two of those teams. That is why we are champions. Every game for us is a final and that is what helped us achieve what we did.”
Egbo means to continue in the same vein going forward. The reward for good work is more work, and Tirona will compete in the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds starting in mid-August. To that end, a cold weather training camp has been organized in the central Albanian city of Pogradec.
Before that though, there are some loose ends that will need tying up. Egbo would like a salary increase as a prerequisite to continuing in the job, and would also need to be able to hire a dedicated goalkeeping coach – remarkably, since taking over in December he has combined head coach responsibilities with his former goalkeeper coach duties.
It is also necessary for the club to find a resolution with Ngoo regarding his contract. Losing him would make navigating the Champions League qualifiers difficult, but it might well open the door to highly-rated teenager Ernest Muci, who Egbo has carefully introduced into the side to good effect. That would completely alter the team’s attacking dynamic, however, and so it presents a fresh challenge for the 47-year-old manager to resolve.
With very little by way of an off-season, one wonders if Egbo has even found the time to bask in the sheer improbability of his success. Taking Tirona back to the top of Albanian football is sure to bestow instant celebrity status, and setting a trend for other African coaches is something he admits is only just sinking in. Is he enjoying any of this at all? Can he?
He laughs. “Well, my family are the ones signing autographs.
“I’m the shy type, I don’t like being in the limelight. So they are always the ones people run to, trying to greet them, saying ‘Ah, this is the wife of the coach of KF Tirana’, and so on.
“They are enjoying it more than me because I don’t like being in the spotlight always. But it’s OK, that’s my type. I’m the introvert type that doesn’t like too much celebration to show what I’ve achieved. I like working hard and then let my success and victories speak for themselves.”