Playing for Albania at the Parc de Princes in March 1991, Rudi Vata feigned injury, ran down the tunnel, got changed, stuffed $50 into his pocket and made a beeline for a Paris police station where he approached the counter and asked to claim political asylum. The then 22-year-old had not a doubt that what awaited were the “opportunities”, adventures and “freedoms” denied to him in his oppressive eastern European homeland – even if he didn’t know precisely what form these would take.
“I had a masterplan,” he said the other day. “It was an unwritten masterplan, but it was a masterplan I had deep inside of me since I was a young boy. It wasn’t my fault I was brought up in a dictatorship, but it was my fault if I didn’t do something about it. It wasn’t my fault I was born in poverty, but it would have been my fault if I had died poor.”
Vata lives a rich life in Hamilton now, the Lanarkshire town where he first set up home on signing for Celtic in 1992 at the beginning of a globetrotting career that took him to six different countries all told. He is rich not only in monetary terms, but in life experiences and understanding the importance of values, of standards, of striving.
Vata is the closest thing to an Albanian-Scot in the footballing sphere that will see these two countries meet for the first time tomorrow, in the Nations League at Hampden. His wife, Anne Frances, and children Ruan, 16, and 13-year-old Rocco – a highly-regarded prospect in Celtic’s academy system – might all be native to his adopted land. However, as Vata features in Albanian television’s coverage of the game, there will be no conflicting loyalties…even if he concedes the night will be “weird” and “strange” for him. “One hundred million per cent I want Albania to win,” he said of the country he represented 59 times across 11 years.
Indeed, despite the utter contempt for his country’s rulers that drove him from it – “It might have changed but it suffers from weak government because you can only be a politician if you are corrupt” – he flew the flag for Albania on a football field as no-one had before him. A regime change allowed Vata to return to the international fold 18 months after he had holed up in France playing for lower league Le Mans and Tours. He did so having initially had his asylum bid rejected because as a footballer he wasn’t considered to have been “badly treated, discriminated against or tortured”.
A man-of-the-match performance against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin in 1992 led then Celtic manager Liam Brady to bring him to Glasgow. A period of financial convulsion at the club might have followed, but, in 1995, under Tommy Burns’ management, he featured in the club’s Scottish Cup final success. A triumph that not only lifted a weight for the club following six seasons without silverware, it lifted Vata to a stature beyond any previous Albanian as he became the first player from his country to win a major honour in a western European league.
“I don’t know what it meant to anyone in my country, but I know what it meant to me,” he said. “I didn’t expect things to happen so quickly for me, but I signed for one of the biggest clubs in the UK, the first club to win the Champions League [then European Cup] in the UK, and then I won the cup. What happened to me, what I achieved as an Albanian at that time came out of a situation that made it seem almost impossible.”
The right-back remembers only the good times, he says, from any point in his career: it is how he is. That can’t be easy when reviewing his four years at Celtic. He was never a regular, and nothing was regular at the club as it was under the yoke of Rangers, and almost went bust before Fergus McCann’s 1994 takeover.
“I wasn’t aware of quite what was going on until I began to learn the language. But as managers came and went I could understand things were not stable, not right in any sense. Rangers were then signing players for so much money, [Brian] Laudrup, [Paul] Gascoigne, and they looked dominant but we can see now and understand how they paid to do that.”
Vata cashed in every ounce of his talent to later win the Cypriot Cup with Apollon Limassol, before a successful spell with German side Energie Cottbus, pictured far left, helping them earn promotion to the Bundesliga. He also had the joy of living in Tokyo with Yokohama in Japan’s J- league before a short spell at St Johnstone and a stint back in his homeland with Partizani Tirana ahead of him becoming a sports agent.
“I was serious about what I did, I was disciplined, played by the rules, did what was asked of me and worked harder than anyone else. In Germany, that was the ethic, a fantastic people, and I had to work 30 per cent more than any home-based player because why else would they play an Albanian? In Japan the work ethic was even more incredible. And Tokyo, a city of 20 million people and no crime? How can that be? Because it is unlike anywhere else in the world, so modern, so clean, so amazing, with people who will work from the very earliest hours till late at night, and show you every respect, show you the best manners. I know many other players find a country to resettle in and stay there for their career because they can’t cope with constantly adapting to new cultures, new languages. But for me doing so just kept opening my eyes.”
Vata is caught between two worlds in seeking to educate his children. They can’t fully appreciate the sacrifices he made for his football career, and his family. “You must be prepared to suffer, my friend,” he said. “Give more than you think you can give. I didn’t want to party, I didn’t want to abuse my body and still would never do. You train, you work, you train harder. But young people have it too easy.
“I say to my sons I had to provide not just for me but for my mother and father, for my brother. I had to arrange their visas, their travel, buy them their homes, make sure they were OK. All my sons have to think about is themselves.”
Vata for now pours his emotion and his energies more into their well-being than his footballing agency – which in the past helped broker the deals that took Garry O’Connor and Aiden McGeady to Russia. He went down the route of acting for players after his one representative sold him short for personal gain, blocking moves he could have made from Celtic to Marseille and AEK Athens because he could receive a bigger cut by moving him to Cyprus. “It left me with heartbreak, destroyed my feelings, even if it ended up a successful time and the money was good. If you have money, it can only make you happy for a few days. If you think you are at the wrong club, money, however important, can’t overcome that once those few days have passed. I wanted to put players first. I wanted to put what was best for them above all else. So many football agencies are businesses run by people who have no interest in football or in their players. Their only interest is how much money they can make.”
The interest the 49-year-old takes in football is inspired by the talents of his son Rocco. With the right attitude, the right application, the heights his youngest can reach in the game he considers unlimited. “I don’t think he can make it all the way, I know. Others think he can and tell me so. Celtic get so much right now about how they develop their young players with the school system at St Ninian’s. He leaves at 7am every morning and returns at 7pm every night but that is not a big sacrifice. He should want to make any and every one he can. Look at [Cristiano] Ronaldo. At 33 he signs for Juventus for all this money because he has worked harder than any player in history, and keeps doing so to even when he is a multi-millionaire and has achieved it all. He wasn’t even put up as one of the absolute top players of his generation in Portugal to begin with.”
Vata is damning about how few accomplished performers will be on show at Hampden. He doesn’t pretend to know how the game will pan out this evening – “People keep asking me to predict the score but I’m not a magician” – but feels it might come down to basics. He maintains his country’s stunning breakthrough in qualifying for Euro 2016 should not disguise the need for further progress. “Albania aren’t the worst and Scotland aren’t the best. It will be about who is organised, works harder and makes fewest mistakes.”
No surprise that Vata should zero in on his guiding principles.