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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
Albania restricted to 20 fans
There were fears fans would claim asylum
The Albanian football team will be cheered on by just 20 supporters at Wednesday's World Cup qualifying match with England because of fears that fans would seek to claim asylum in droves.

The match between England and Albania is being played at St James's Park in Newcastle.

A Home Office spokesman confirmed that 155 visa applications had been turned down.

A total of 102 visas have been granted by the British Embassy in the Albanian capital Tirana, of which 82 were for players, officials and accredited journalists.

"There were a further 70 requests for visas from the Albanian Football Association but these were refused," said the spokesman.

Population: 3.5m
Communist state until 1992
Widespread civil unrest 1997
Huge influx of Kosovan refugees 1999
700 UK asylum applications so far this year

He said: "An additional 85 applications from travel agencies and individuals were also turned down."

Albania had been allocated 400 tickets for the game but there will be only 20 supporters in the visitors' section.

The spokesman said one of the requirements of the visa was proof the fan had travelled to the team's previous World Cup qualifier away games, and had returned home after the match.

"A view has to be taken, and one of the reasons is whether or not they would present any risk of claiming asylum when they got here," he added.

Up to the end of July this year, Albanians had made 700 applications for asylum, according to official figures.

Footballing 'minnows'

Albania has a population of about 3.5 million and is one of the world's poorest nations.

Albania football
Lost 3-1 to England in March
Five successive defeats in this World Cup qualifying round
It suffered severe civil disruption in 1997, when its football clubs were banned from European competition, and the national team was ordered to play its internationals on neutral territory.

Then in the late 1990s came the Kosovan war, which led 500,000 ethnic Albanian refugees to take sanctuary there, putting further strains on its fragile economy.

Conflict threatened to call the game between England and Albania into doubt in March this year, but it was subsequently deemed safe for the match to go ahead. England won 3-1.

Most of the Albanian team are on the fringes of top flight football - three are in Germany, two in Belgium, two in Greece and one in each of Turkey, France, Italy and Cyprus.

The Albanian player best known in Britain is central defender Rudi Vata, who played for Glasgow Celtic between 1992 and 1996 and has 56 caps.

The team is considered a minnow internationally, with a poor World Cup record, but England coach Sven Goran Eriksson says they must be treated with caution.

See also:

04 Sep 01 | World Cup 2002
Martyn in England blow
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Albania
08 May 01 | Europe
Timeline: Albania
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