If you walk through the center of Tirana and you would never guess that as recently as 1985 this was one of the world’s most hard-line Stalinist-Marxist states.   Led by a regime that cultivated itself as Maoist never mind Stalinist, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania was led by Enver Hoxha the leader of the communist party.

Today, monuments once dedicated to the communist leader have been torn down like those that were erected for Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  The leader’s one-time villa in the center of Tirana is now open to inspection and ridicule thanks to its 70’s interiors while other communist era buildings have been redeveloped far removed from the past to mirror the city’s rapid urban transformation.

Just like the Pyramid of Tirana (the one-time museum that was host to Hoxha’s legacy) the Stadium is undergoing modernization.  But perhaps the most surprising thing is that neither of these monuments was named after the party leader with the national stadium being named after Qemal Stafa the founder of the Albanian Communist Party.

Construction of the former Stadiumi Qemal Stafa began in 1938 during the reign of the mysterious King Zog but its creation was not fully completed until after liberation from Mussolini’s occupying Italian forces.  Its official inauguration followed during the post war period in 1946 when the Albanian national football team played in the Balkan Games.

As well as the international squad two Albanian clubs made the stadium its home for football matches: Partizani who were founded just after liberation, and Dinamo Tirana the one-time club of the Communist interior ministry.

Centrally located near the modern-day Mother Teresa Square the stadium is surrounded by other public buildings such as the University of Tirana, the Palace of Congress and the Archaeological Museum. These buildings have (like the one-time Qemal Stafa) a white rusticated stone entrance feel with stairwells leading to open balconies that overlook the piazza like square below.

Despite a number of refits over the years – which included new stands, floodlights and a running track – a decision was made in 2012 to demolish the Qemal Stafa and replace it with a new modern construction. Design invites eventually settled on a 20,000-seat stadium on the location of the former Qemal Stafa with a domineering skyscraper incorporated into the north west corner.  The last match played at the former stadia was the 2016 Albanian Cup final between Kukesi and KF Laci.

Two of the key drivers behind the modern Arena are the current Prime Minister Edi Rama and the President of Albanian Football Association, Armand Duka.  Both figures have no been immune to accusations of corruption particularly with respect to Rama’s time as the mayor of Tirana.

Due to his flamboyance and rebellious tone Rama has often been accused of arrogance and elitism, although so far, the creation of the new national arena has been free from too much scrutiny, but the late delivery is seen as a drawback for sports investment realized in Albania.  The national association Federata Shqiptare e Futbollit; has heavily publicized its Projekti “Grow” në Shqipëri strategy to grow football for both men and women in Albania.

The new stadium has been designed by an architectural team from the Italian city of Florence with the key aspect of the new design being the removal of the running track and the increase in the stadium capacity to 22,000 seats.  In addition, the new stadium which will be known as the Arena Kombetare also includes a 100-meter tower; an 80-room hotel with the rooms all hidden behind a unique set of red and black blinds in the national colors of Albania.

At the moment construction of the new stadium is behind schedule although the structure is almost complete.  At a total cost of 60 million Euros it is expected to open in spring 2020.