Tirana gets ready for Europa Conference League final
By LLAZAR SEMINI
TIRANA, Albania (AP) Tens of thousands of soccer fans are expected to visit the Albanian capital of Tirana for the Europa Conference League final between Dutch club Feyenoord and Italian team Roma on Wednesday.
Tirana Airport is preparing to welcome more than 300 flights in two days, the biggest number it has ever tried to manage. Other fans plan to land in neighboring Kosovo and Montenegro and drive to Tirana.
"Come in, come in," Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, a former professional basketball player, said while addressing the tourists.
Many Italian, Dutch and other foreigners have been walking the streets of Tirana in recent days. Up to 100,000 soccer fans are expected in the city despite each club being allocated only 4,000 tickets for the inaugural final of the third-tier European tournament, which was designed to give smaller clubs a shot at a continental competition.
Capacity at the National Arena is about 21,000. There are expected to be 650 stewards inside the stadium and thousands of police officers outside for the match.
Albanian authorities have taken several precautionary steps for what they want to be a "festive day." Wednesday was declared a public holiday, but police, health and other service employees will be working.
Both Feyenoord and Roma are storied clubs with big fan bases. Their supporters will be gathered in separate "fan zones" about one kilometer apart.
The partying has already begun, much to dismay of some locals. On Monday, residents of an apartment building in downtown Tirana threw water to hush Dutch fans drinking beer below late at night.
On Tuesday, Albanian police at the main Skanderbeg Square pushed away a small group of Italian fans who had been hurling water bottles to keep them away from Dutch fans.
"We won't tolerate acts of violence and vandalism," Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj said.
Downtown Tirana will be a pedestrian-only zone on Wednesday as part of measures "to organize in the most exemplary way one of the most major events that have occurred in Albania," Interior Minister Bledi Cuci has said.
Some main roads linking Tirana to the western city of Durres or the airport will be closed and only fans with tickets or those going to fan zones will be allowed in.
The Europa Conference League trophy was put on display at Skanderbeg Square, which will also host a "fan festival" with concerts, drinks and games.
UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, picked Tirana as host in December 2020, one year after the new stadium officially opened and before any team qualified to enter the debut competition.
The inaugural final is a higher-profile match than what was envisioned by many in 2018 when UEFA decided to create the Europa Conference League. Its aim was to give more opportunities to clubs in lower-ranked countries.
An even smaller stadium - the Eden Arena in Prague - is set to host the 2023 final.
Follow Llazar Semini at https://twitter.com/lsemini
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Updated May 24, 2022