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Tirana gears up for first European final

Tens of thousands of soccer fans are arriving in the Albanian capital of Tirana as it prepares to host the biggest sports event in its history.

The Europa Conference League may have been derided when it was launched, but the climax is eagerly awaited by finalists Feyenoord, of the Netherlands, and Italian team Roma – and the hosts.

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 neighbouring 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.

Up to 100,000 fans are expected 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.

Albanian authorities have taken several precautionary steps for what they want to be a “festive day.” Wednesday’s matchday was declared a public holiday, but police, health and other service employees will be working.

Both Feyenoord and Roma are famous clubs with big fan bases. Their supporters will be gathered in separate “fan zones”.

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.

“We won’t tolerate acts of violence and vandalism,” Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj said.

Downtown Tirana will be a pedestrian-only zone, 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.

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.

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