D.C. United’s Hamdi Salihi looked to the upper reaches of Red Bull Arena on Sunday evening and saw the usual collection of red and black in the visiting supporters’ section.
The show of colors didn’t, however, just represent United. It was also a salute to Salihi — red-and-black flags and banners unfurled by fans with Albanian roots.
Most of the 200 in the group live near New York, but with Salihi, a national team striker, making his only visit to the area, they joined forces with 250-plus United fans in backing the visiting team. The Albanians and D.C.-based fans marched into the stadium together.
“It made me feel proud, it made me feel good, because it’s something special to play in another continent and you have support,” he said Tuesday.
Albania, smaller in size than Maryland, has a population of just 3 million. An estimated 200,000 Americans have Albanian roots (Regis Philbin, among them!), the latest influx coming in the 1990s because of Balkan instability.
The cheering section Sunday included several national flags, which are strikingly similar to United’s coat of arms: red and black with a prominent eagle.
Some of the banners paid tribute to Salihi’s home town, Shkoder, and its soccer history: Born in 1919, Vllaznia Shkoder, Salihi’s first team, is Albania’s oldest club.
Shkoder is a city of 100,000 in northwest Albania, on the shores of a large lake shared with Montenegro, near the Adriatic Sea and in the shadows of the Albanian Alps.
Salihi’s family still lives there, and through Internet connections, watches United’s matches. His signing early this year boosted MLS’s visibility in the small country and, it seems, sparked interest in United.
“United now have 1 or 2 million fans because I know all of Albania wants to know how I am doing, how much I play, how United is doing,” he said, with a laugh. “Maybe they didn’t know about United before, but now they know.”
Salihi has seen Albanian flags at other MLS venues, but not as many as in New York, America’s ethnic melting pot.
“You feel this only when you play soccer,” he said of the sport’s global tapestry. “You see people in different countries, supporting you, and it makes you feel like you’ve done something good in your career.”
Salihi, 28, will play for Albania’s national team soon, although it’s unclear when exactly he will report again. An Aug. 15 friendly against Moldova falls on a date set aside by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, for mandatory releases by players’ clubs. (United has league matches on Aug. 11 and 19.)
With 2014 World Cup qualifiers approaching, Salihi said it would be important to perform against Moldova for the new national team coach, Gianni De Biasi of Italy.
Albania, which has never qualified for the World Cup or European Championship, begins UEFA Group E play against Cyprus at home Sept. 7 and at Switzerland four days later. The group also includes Norway, Slovenia and Iceland.
With nine international goals, including one last fall in a Euro 2012 qualifier against Romania, Salihi is the seventh-leading scorer in Albanian history.
“It’s important for Albania to do well,” he said. “We love football, and we want to make history.”
His fans in America wholeheartedly agree.