Olympique de Marseille captain Lorik Cana

EuroStars: Lorik Cana/Albania

EuroStars: Lorik Cana/Albania

Publish on 05/29 at 02:00 - E. DEVIN


In the first of our series celebrating the 2024 European Championships, we’ll focus on a player from each of the 24 countries participating (except for France). These legends have achieved success with their countries and in Ligue 1, and have helped to make the game in France what it is today: exciting, fast-paced and cosmopolitan

Albania have qualified for only the second major tournament in their history, following the 2016 European Championships. Political unrest and a lack of a competitive edge prevented much success from the Kuqezinjtë through the 20th century, but after the year 2000, the team’s fortunes improved, as they rose from a FIFA ranking in the mid-90s to crack the top 40.

Led by a core of veterans that included Mërgim Mavraj and Andi Lila as well as youngsters like Elseid Hysaj, the Albanians shocked Europe by coming second in a qualifying group that included eventual champions Portugal, Denmark and Serbia. Key to their qualification was their defence — with only five goals conceded, the Albanians won 1-0 away to Portugal and played a scoreless draw in Denmark.

The tournament was tougher, but for a pair of late goals conceded to France, they nearly progressed. Key to this solidity was the team’s record appearance holder, Lorik Cana. Born in Pristina in Kosovo, his family fled the war-torn region in 1992, settling in Switzerland where he first played the game at a serious level. Cana’s career included spells in the top flight in England, Italy and Turkey, but it was France where he truly established himself as a star.

While he would later play as a central defender, Cana came through the ranks at Paris Saint-Germain as a defensive midfielder. A trial in 2000 in the French capital saw him sign a contract with the reserves, working under Antoine Kombouaré. Injuries and competition for places saw his career be something of a slow burn, but in 2003/04, he became a regular, helping Les Parisiens finish second and win the Coupe de France, an impressive season in the pre-QSI days. The next campaign was more challenging, as PSG finished bottom of a tough Champions League group with holders Porto and Chelsea, and only finished ninth in the league.

A move to Olympique de Marseille would follow, and if Cana had impressed in Paris, he shone in the south of France, playing for a club he had followed since his teenage years, telling the OM website, “Even before I arrived in France, I was already a supporter of Olympique de Marseille. I followed them in 1991, the year of the final lost on penalties to Red Star Belgrade, I was already supporting the club. And then there was the Champions League title in 1993."

Despite a churn in terms of managers, Cana helped the team come runners-up in the Coupe de France twice and finish in the top three in each of his last three seasons. He was even named captain in the last two of these, his fiery style and tough tackling providing a solid foundation for a cadre of young attackers, including Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Mathieu Valbuena to flourish.

A big-money move to Sunderland followed, for just a single season, before he left for Galatasaray and then Lazio, where injuries slowed his abilities. He closed out his club career with a single season at FC Nantes, helping the Breton side punch above its weight as they stayed in the mix for Europe until falling away near the end of the season.

In the time since his retirement, Cana has worked as an ambassador for grassroots football, and studied for his coaching license, but he continues to follow Ligue 1, particularly the exploits of Marseille. As he told World Football Index last year, "The fans were great with me and I achieved a boyhood dream of representing  Marseille and I loved every opportunity that I had to walk out at the stadium as a Marseille player.”