- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2016

TIRANA, Albania (AP) - Albania is expected to start work on a new 22,300-seat national stadium next month, a boost for the country’s soccer team as it prepares to play in its first major championship.

Albanian soccer federation spokesman Tritan Kokona said Thursday that the 50 million euro ($56.7 million) project is expected to be completed in three years.

Without a state-of-the-art stadium in Tirana, UEFA threatened to pull qualifying matches out of the country. Despite the difficulties, the team surprisingly qualified for this year’s European Championship from a group that included Denmark and Serbia - playing its matches in the central city of Elbasan.

“Many people are enthusiastic that Albania will have a stadium of the highest European standards, a stadium where not only our national team plays but also, if possible, a European Cup final or that of the Europa League is played,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said Thursday at a ceremony.

Rama’s government, which came to power in 2013, made improvements to the stadium in Elbasan, 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of the capital. It is also reconstructing another stadium in the northern city of Shkodra.

The National Arena will be built in Tirana, where the old Qemal Stafa Stadium now stands. The old stadium was named in honor of a national hero of the Communist Party who died in 1942 during the World War II, when Albania was occupied by then-fascist Italy.

The new stadium, which will be built by Albanian company Albstar, will also have underground parking, a hotel, shops and bars and will be used for entertainment events.

At Euro 2016, Albania will play in Group A with host France, Romania and Switzerland.

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