Lorik Cana is a fighter. Anyone who has seen the Albanian give his all in the colours of Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille, Sunderland, Galatasaray, Lazio and now Nantes knows that the tag, which has been applied to him since his early days in the game, is hardly a cliché.
The defender is never anything less than fully committed when playing for his national team either. Capped 89 times in all, the 32-year-old Albania skipper is the heartbeat of the side, and will soon be leading them out at UEFA EURO 2016, where the eastern Europeans will be making their first appearance at a major international tournament.
Cana and his troops will go into battle on 11 June against Switzerland, 13 years to the very day after his international debut, which also came against the Swiss, in Geneva, a mere 60 kilometres away from where he grew up. “It’s a lovely quirk of fate,” smiled the veteran, who spoke to FIFA.comabout all the battles he has faced in life and on the pitch.
A fight for survival "I am from Kosovo. I left with my family in 1990, when the first war with Yugoslavia broke out. Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia at the time and like a lot of our Albanian compatriots who came from there and Macedonia, we found refuge in Switzerland and Germany. I spent ten years of my childhood in Switzerland until I left for France in 2000 to start training with PSG."
His background "My father was a professional footballer and he played in pretty much the same way as me. He put a lot into it and he was a real winner. He was also very hard on me when I was growing up, both on a personal level and when it came to football. He always pushed me to the very limit to succeed, because he could see that I had what it took. He instilled his values in me and taught me to never give up. My motivation to succeed was also fired by the journey my family had taken and the tough times faced by the people who stayed back home. All that has shaped the player that I am today."
His career "When I played for PSG reserves, I had this real desire to succeed. Antoine Kombouare was the coach at the time and he helped me overcome all the mental barriers. The war, which was just coming to an end in my home country, also spurred me on to succeed and to make it at Paris. It’s a club where it’s always been difficult for young players from the training academy to break into the first team, which is why I always put a lot of energy and commitment into everything I did, and a lot of physicality too. That’s where I forged the image that’s followed me around everywhere."
His country "I’ve always wanted to represent Albania and the Albanian people. The opportunity came my way pretty quickly, and it was logical too because I was playing for Paris. I won my first cap at the age of 19 and that’s when the story began. The national team is very special for Albanian people, and there are more of them living outside the country than in it. The team was the means for them to be united for the first time under the same flag and to do something together. A lot of players were born or grew up abroad, and our national team gave us the chance to do great things together for the very first time. That’s what’s helped us to stick together and to qualify for the EUROS after so many twists and turns."
His national team "I’ve always tried to get the best Albanian players to come and join us. We have a lot of things going for us and we can make the most of them if the conditions are right. We have a lot of very good players who’ve had the chance to develop their game abroad, and it’s that that’s helped us qualify for the EUROS, which was unimaginable three or four years ago. Before the 2000s, we had a team that represented the state of Albania, whereas now we’ve got a team that truly represents all Albanians. The players can feel that.
"The further we got in our qualification campaign, the more people got behind us and the more the pressure grew. We had to learn how to deal with it. My job is to hold things together when they’re not going well and when results aren’t going our way. I try to be a bit of a lightning rod for the others and to take a little bit of the pressure from their shoulders. I also make sure that the new faces are OK and settle into the team quickly. After all, the national team belongs to people who deserve to be there and who really want to be there."
The future "We have our minds set on one date and that’s 11 June. That first match will be the most important one, and my thoughts are on it and nothing else. I couldn’t possibly have a bigger dream than qualifying with my country for a competition like this, in France. I can’t really say what’s going to happen afterwards because there are a lot of young players around and they are coming on all the time. I’ve supported them through all these years, and you have to step aside for them at some stage. I’ll talk about it with the national association and my family after the EUROS and I’ll make a decision then. It could very well be my last major challenge, though.
"There are a lot of players aged around 23 or 24 and playing in good leagues. They’ll be contributing their energy and desire to what comes next and the qualifiers for the World Cup in Russia, where we’ve been drawn into a tough group with Spain and Italy, though Albania also have what it takes to enjoy a good campaign. As for me, I just want to make the right decision on a personal level and also for the good of the squad and the development and the image of the team.
"It’s essential that the young players achieve the best level they can, but you can’t make them waste too much time either. There’s a whole appraisal process that needs to be gone through, and that’ll have to come after the EUROS and the holidays because it’s been a long season. Even so, even when I won’t be with the team on the pitch, I’ll be right with them off it."
The last Men's Olympic Football Tournament at London 2012 was memorable for Korea Republic, who defied all odds to finish in third place as they clinched their maiden medal at the global showpiece. Now four years on, with that milestone achievement still fresh in mind, Shin Taeyong's side are expected to emulate the feat at Rio 2016.
The draw, however, provided few favours for the Asians. Once again they are pitted against Mexico, the tournament's defending champions against whom they played out a goalless draw in the group stage four years ago. Added to that, Germany are always a hard nut to crack for any opponents, while Fiji are no pushovers given their impressive qualifying performances. Despite the hard assignment, midfielder Kwon Changhoon believes that the current squad are more than capable of living up to expectations.
"I know it is a very difficult goal to revive the glory of four years ago," the 21-year-old Suwon Bluewings player told FIFA.com. "But we will aim for a medal in Rio and for that we’ll prepare as one team. I think we must prepare well and need to maintain our good condition heading to the Olympic Games.”
Kwon's confidence is not ill-founded considering their impressive campaign at the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship, during which they finished runners-up and thus earned the right to represent Asia at Rio 2016. The diminutive predator hit five goals to finish as the team's top-scorer, performances that truly established him among the promising stars of not only his country, but also the continent.
After being substituted during their opening victory against Uzbekistan, Kwon started in the second outing against Yemen and proved to be unstoppable, completing a hat-trick in the first half to set his side on the path to a 5-0 blowout. His fourth came in the semi-final clash against hosts Qatar as they prevailed 3-1, before opening the scoring against Japan in the final.
"I scored five goals but it is just a number," continued the modest youngster, playing down his individual brilliance during the campaign. "My goals should be attributed to the help of my team-mates, as well as the trust of the coach. During the tournament we fought as one team and all our goals are a testament to our teamwork."
Korea Republic remained undefeated in the qualifying competition until their good run was abruptly ended by Japan in the final. Curiously, Kwon singled out their only defeat of the campaign as the most memorable match. "We put in good performances, almost perfect," he reflected, citing the fact that they were two goals up in the first half only to inexplicably throw away the two-goal advantage and lose 3-2. "But we lost in the closing moments. It was a bitter defeat, but I think it will be a good experience for me and the team to learn and improve from."
"We had our confidence bolstered after the qualifying campaign. Self-belief is one of the most important things in football. We proved ourselves through this tournament. Personally, I learned that there is still much to learn in order to play better football."
Park Jisung admirer Like every young aspirant, Kwon has had his own role model since starting playing football as a third-grade elementary-school kid. The man from whom he has drawn inspiration down the years is none other than Park Jisung, the former Korea Republic and Manchester United star who is widely considered the best midfielder the country has produced.
"Personally I like Lionel Messi, but I admire Park Jisung when it comes to the term of idol,” Kwon said. “I think he is the world's best footballer. My lifetime dream is to become a footballer like him.”
It remains to be seen whether the burgeoning star will continue his smooth development and one day reach Park’s lofty status. For the time being, Kwon's displays are certainly eye-catching as he continues to score regularly for both club and country.
Aside from his performances during Olympic qualifying, he scored three times for the senior side in Asia's second qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. At club level, he scored 11 times in all competitions for Suwon last season, a significant tally for an emerging player.
It seems a bright future is assured, but for now Kwon is simply fixing his sights on achieving breakthrough success at Rio 2016 this August. "I’m glad that we got a chance to challenge a big stage like Olympic Games,” he said. “I believe it will be a good opportunity (for me) to become a better player.”
“My first dream is to play in the World Cup, and my second is to become a champion.”
These were the now-legendary words of a 12-year-old Diego Armando Maradona, underlining his life ambitions as he spoke on camera for the very first time. He was destined, of course, to live those dreams, becoming an inspirational FIFA World Cup™-winning captain for Argentina 13 years after that early interview.
This image shows Maradona clutching the prize he had so long coveted, descending amid a sea of fans and well-wishers all eager for a glimpse of Mexico 1986’s outstanding player. But had the reality lived up to the dream? The then 25-year-old, having set up the winning goal in a thrilling 3-2 win over West Germany before a crowd of 114,600, left no doubt. "This is the happiest day of my life," he said simply.
“We'd waited all those days at the training camp, thought about it so much, and there I was with my hands on it,” he reflected, years later, in an interview with FIFA.com. “It makes you so proud. It's the most beautiful thing. It’s like touching the sky.”
Did you know? Several unique Maradona items grace the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich, with the Mexico 1986 showcase featuring one his shirts from the tournament – signed by the great man himself.
For the Iranian faithful, it has been quite some years since Team Melli has enjoyed the services of a truly reliable goal-getter following the retirement of international leading scorer Ali Daei. It is a fact borne out by Iran's performances during Asia's qualifying final round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, with Carlos Queiroz's side progressing as the lowest scorers among the continent's qualified quartet, with just eight goals from as many games. Their campaign at Brazil 2014 proved disappointing in that sense, too, with just one goal scored.
Now though, with the meteoric rise of Sardar Azmoun, the void left by the world's international goal-king is seemingly set to be filled. Seven goals from five matches is the impressive goal-scoring rate as the Rostov forward, who turned 21 in January, finished Asia's second qualifying round for Russia 2018 as the team's top-scorer. Notably, Azmoun completed his first international brace in their 6-0 rout of Guam, before striking twice as his side beat Oman 2-0 in the group concluder to progress.
Azmoun's free-scoring form has seen him hailed as a goal-king in the making. But while fans are hoping he will assume Daei's mantle, the lanky forward opted to downplay growing expectations.
"I will try (to be a great striker like Daei)," he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "But honestly speaking, I don't want to be occupied with goals like this. What I want is to help Iran and I am proud of scoring goals for my team. I am still young and I should concentrate on improving my skills."
Queiroz trust Just a year back, few knew who Azmoun was when he became a surprise inclusion in Queiroz's 2015 AFC Asian Cup squad. Of course, those following Iran's game closely are aware what he is capable of after his exploits with Rubin Kazan, the Russian side he joined as a teenager in 2013. He was on target eight times across 32 appearances for Kazan in all competitions, including breaking his duck by scoring in a 3-0 UEFA Europa League win against Molde.
"The coach (Queiroz) gave me the call-up (to the last Asian Cup team)," he recalled. "He placed plenty of trust in me. But for me, it was no surprise. I had anticipated that he would call me up and he did."
It did not take Azmoun long to prove Queiroz right on the continental stage. After playing briefly as a substitute in Iran's opening win against Bahrain, he was handed a surprise start against Qatar. Azmoun did not let the chance slip, repaying the coach's faith by scoring the match-winning goal. He went on to open the scoring in the quarter-final clash against Iraq as the two sides were locked at 3-3 after regular and additional periods, only to see the opponents prevail with a penalty shoot-out victory. Despite the loss, Azmoun emerged as one of the tournament's biggest revelations, alongside the likes of Massimo Luongo and Omar Abdulrahman.
"I was enormously happy to play for the national team in such an important tournament," he continued, reflecting on his first major competition representing Iran. "For me, it was just like a dream come true. It provided me with confidence as well as motivation."
Messi or Ibrahimovic Azmoun's club form has been similarly impressive. Since moving to play for Rostov on loan at the start of last year, he has dazzled spectators through his forward forays and goals. His fine displays have seen him among the most sought-after Asian youth stars, with rumours that he has attracted interest by the likes of Everton, Stoke City and even Barcelona. His growing popularity is such that he has been dubbed as "Iranian Messi" by fans and media alike.
Azmoun, though, thinks differently. "Zlatan Ibrahimovic is my idol player," he stated. “And Real Madrid is my favourite club.”
With an athletic 182cm frame, Azmoun boasts exceptional aerial ability, consummate control of the ball and is known for his bursts of acceleration, creativity and adept finishing. "Azmoun has all the qualities to be a top-class striker," remarked his former Rubin Kazan manager Rinat Bilyaletdinov.
With so many promises to live up to, Azmoun is all too aware what tasks are facing him. “Every player wants to show his best with the national team and I am no exception,” he said. “My chief goal is to help Iran (to the World Cup) and make our supporters happy. In order to achieve this, I must keep in mind that I have a lot of hard work ahead of me.”
Jurgen Klopp has long been afforded cult status among German football fans, but today the world game is more than aware of the coach's witty lyrical talents. Kloppo, as he is affectionately known by friends and colleagues, has found a unique - and usually very funny - way to give his own take on his time in the managerial hot seat at Mainz, Borussia Dortmund and, now, Liverpool.
With the latter two meeting in the UEFA Europa League, seeing Klopp return to the scene of his greatest triumphs in football - winning back-to-back German Bundesliga titles, a DFB Pokal and taking Dortmund to the UEFA Champions League final - we are taking the opportunity to recall some of his best quips and quotes. So enjoy the two-time German coach of the year and 2013 FIFA World Coach of the Year for Men's Football runner-up giving his views on everything from heavy metal football to Robin Hood.
“Honestly, for me, football is deadly serious for 90 minutes and that’s it. The whole circus that’s built up around it, the protagonists who are made out to be this, that, or the other – it’s all crazy, obviously, and happily I’m smart enough to be able see that for what it is. So I tend to prefer a more humorous approach to the subject.” His views on the way football is covered in the media
"I am 'The Normal One'. I am a normal guy from the Black Forest. I was a very average player. I don't compare myself with these genius managers from the past." After being compared to Jose 'The Special One' Mourinho
"Unfortunately I was never able to transfer what was in my head onto the pitch during my playing career. I had the talent for the regional leagues and the brain for the Bundesliga - so I ended up in the second division."On his qualities as a defender
"My abilities were somewhat limited in comparison with his…"On former Germany striker Jurgen Klinsmann
"I've had to put up with poor football for long enough - mainly my own."On his ambitions as a coach as opposed to a player
"Maybe that was the case when I was 17 or 18."When asked whether he was a 'one-night man' after temporarily taking over the leadership of the Bundesliga table with Dortmund early last season
"We're still encouraged to phone players directly. If we make their agents an offer, they usually think we're pulling their leg."On Mainz's shoestring transfer policy
"If the fans want emotion and you give them a game of chess, one of you is going to have to find a new stadium. 60,000 Dortmund fans don't want to sit there twiddling their thumbs. They want to see passion!"On the mentality of the Borussia Dortmund fans
"We have a bow and arrow and if we aim well, we can hit the target. The problem is that Bayern has a bazooka – but then Robin Hood was quite successful." On Dortmund taking on Bayern Munich
"It doesn't make it any easier to run your heart out when you've just woken up in a five-star hotel. Too much comfort makes you comfortable." On the 'difficulties' facing modern footballers
"When we last won in Munich, most of these players were still on breast milk." Following Dortmund's first victory at Bayern in almost 20 years
"He's leaving because he's Guardiola's favourite. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine. I can't make myself shorter and learn Spanish." On Mario Gotze joining Bayern
"It was like a heart attack. It was one day after the win over Malaga. I had one day to celebrate and then somebody thought, 'Enough, go back down on the floor'.” His initial reaction to the news of Gotze's sale, coming shortly after hitting two injury-time goals to beat Malaga in the UEFA Champions League quarter finals
"We didn't practise with the heading pendulum. Unfortunately you can't set it that low."After the diminutive Shinji Kagawa scored a header against Karpaty Lviv
"In extreme situations, you have to think fast. At one of my mates' stag parties, we all dressed up as Father Christmas - fully masked!"On remaining discreet when out in public
"Sometimes I scare myself when I watch the pictures back on television."On his extrovert and sometimes aggressive demeanour on the touchline
"When I was younger, we always wanted to play in conditions like this, but we were not allowed to because mum didn't want to do all the washing. Now we can play in these conditions, but nobody wants to." On his Borussia Dortmund team playing in the mud at Freiburg
"If it smells of sweat in here, it's me. The match was just so exciting!" Klopp to his Schalke counterpart Fred Rutten in the lift as they made their way to the post-match press conference following a 3-3 draw in 2008
"I don't really know how often I shave. There's no regular rhythm. I can't see myself in the mirror in the morning anyway - I'm too short-sighted."The secret behind Klopp's ever-changing facial hair
"The same day you finally understand the game of football!"In response to the question of when striker Nelson Valdez would finally leave the club
"Of course! I was a regular customer at the meat counter during the World Cup. I always picked up something for the barbecue."When asked whether he still goes shopping
"He is really something. I love him. He is Sir Arsene Wenger. He is hello (makes a handshake gesture). But he likes having the ball, playing football, passes... it’s like an orchestra. But it is a silent song. I like heavy metal more. I always want it loud. I love Arsenal’s style, but I cannot coach it because I am a different guy. If you watch me during the game I celebrate when we press the ball and it goes out. To enjoy football you have to do this. If, over the last four years, Barcelona were the first team I saw playing when I was four years of age — this serenity of football, they win 5-0, 6-0 — I would have played tennis. It is not my sport. I don’t like winning with 80 per cent of possession. Sorry, that is not enough for me. Fighting football, not serenity football, that is what I like. What we call in German 'English' football — rainy day, heavy pitch, 5-5, everybody is dirty in the face and goes home and cannot play for weeks after." Giving a deep insight into what he loves in the game and his philosophy
2014 FIFA World Cup™ runners-up Argentina are the new team at the top, according to the April 2016 edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
La Albiceleste’s recent performances in World Cup qualifying have helped them end Belgium’s five-month-long reign at the summit of football’s world ranking which began when the Red Devils snatched pole position from Argentina back in November 2015. Close behind, Chile move into third (up two places), Colombia fourth (up four) and Uruguay jump to ninth (up two) to strengthen the South American grip on the top ten.
A total of 171 games have been taken into account for the April edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, which includes 51 qualifiers for Russia 2018, 60 continental qualifiers and 60 international friendlies.
Costa Rica (25th, up eight), Turkey (13th, up seven) and Mexico (16th, up six) have all enjoyed impressive gains near the top for April. A little further down the table, Australia (50th, up 17), Egypt (44th, up nine) and Norway (49th, up two) break into the top 50 at the expense of Trinidad and Tobago (53rd, down four), Serbia (55th, down five) and Finland (61st, down 15).
The two most outstanding performers for April hail from the African continent. Guinea-Bissau (up 45) have climbed the most positions by rank, while Morocco (131 points) enjoy the biggest move by virtue of points.
Celebration of firsts A few teams will celebrate in April having registered their best-ever positions on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Congratulations go to Chile (3rd, up two), Hungary (18th, up one), Northern Ireland (26th, up two), St Kitts and Nevis (92nd, up 29), Chad (97th, up 30), Kyrgyzstan (100th, up five), Guinea-Bissau (102nd, up 45), Belize (114th, up five), Philippines (116th, up 19) and Comoros (159th, up 14).
The next FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking will be published on 5 May 2016.
Moves into top ten
Uruguay (9th, up 2)
Moves out of top ten
Austria (11th, down 1)
Matches played in total
Most matches played
El Salvador, Iraq, Panama, Syria, Trinidad and Tobago, United Arab Emirates (three matches each)