Albania’s Euro 2016 squad was welcomed home on Thursday with a formal red-carpet ceremony and National Guard troops on its return from the country’s first ever participation at a European Championship.
Prime Minister Edi Rama greeted the players at Tirana International Airport before they boarded an open-top bus.
Albania scored its first goal in a major tournament to beat Romania 1-0 and finish third in Group A. But narrow losses to Switzerland and host France cost it a place in the knockout stages as one of the best third-place finishers.
The players will receive the symbolic key to Tirana and applications for diplomatic passports, to highlight their informal role as ambassadors for Albania. They will also visit a fan zone, featuring a DJ and music, to meet supporters.
Albania’s cash-strapped government also decided to allocate a 1 million euro ($1.12 million) reward for the national squad.
“Sport can be a good way of exercising diplomacy, and you have shown that you are our ambassadors to the world,” Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati said. “Albania has many diplomats, but you have achieved true excellence with the message you have sent to the world.”
Thousands of fans ignored temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) to accompany the players’ trip from the airport to downtown Tirana, with streets covered with national flags and people shouting “Bravo guys.”
There was tight security around the squad, with some roads temporarily closed and a helicopter flying above the bus.
“Thank you for your continuous support, and staying now in such heat,” said captain Lorik Cana, who is retiring from international football.
Coach Giovanni De Biasi, an Italian who has also received Albanian citizenship, called on “those youngsters who want a different type of life for themselves” to follow the players’ example.
“The biggest victory comes for us, common Albanians - achieving a major victory and proving to others that when we are together, we can win every battle,” Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj said.