“I don’t normally get nervous before games,” Armando Broja says. But this was different. Chelsea were beating Everton 4-0 at a packed Stamford Bridge and Broja, a raw academy player, was about to make his professional debut. There were four minutes left when Frank Lampard told the young forward to get ready to replace Olivier Giroud.
Twelve months on, Broja admits that he was shocked. It was 8 March 2020, a week before Covid-19 plunged English football into hibernation. Broja had trained with the first team since the end of January and made the bench for Chelsea’s victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup, but the teenager did not expect to come on against Everton. “When I was taking off my jumper and bottoms I was shaking a bit,” the Albania international says. “But as soon as I went on the pitch the nerves went away.”
It was the realisation of a dream for Broja, who has impressed since joining Vitesse Arnhem on loan last September. The 19-year-old is a Chelsea fan and wanted to play for them even when he joined Tottenham aged eight. “Every time we’d play Chelsea I’d say to my parents: ‘I want to play for Chelsea,’” Broja says. “I played against Tino Anjorin and Henry Lawrence, who are at Chelsea now. I wanted to impress Chelsea and when they did come to watch I was the happiest kid ever. I was scouted in the under-nines.”
Broja, who hopes to help Albania shock England in their World Cup qualifier on Sunday, is impressively driven. Highly rated by Chelsea’s academy coaches, he decided to test himself with his first loan by joining Vitesse. The Dutch club have close ties with Chelsea and had Mason Mount on loan in the 2017-18 season.
“A lot of Chelsea players have been there, Mason being one of the main ones,” Broja says. “The Eredivisie is a good league and a lot of top strikers have started off there. It motivated me to try to replicate what they did. I spoke with Mason. He said it was an amazing place to develop. He was explaining how he didn’t play in the first few months and found it difficult. He said: ‘You have to man up quite quickly, you’re living on your own in a different country.’ You’re not going to have your parents to rely on. You’ve got to step up because you’re playing men’s football. You have to ask more from yourself.”
Broja initially found himself on the bench. “I knew I needed to get bigger so I wouldn’t be pushed off the ball,” he says. “You’re playing against grown men. It’s hard physically and mentally. With the pandemic my parents can’t come over every week. Yet Broja, who calls his two sisters on FaceTime every day, took it in his stride. He laughs a lot and explains how he recently had to call his parents for help with a chicken and vegetable pastry dish. “It took me a while but I got there in the end,” he says. He could easily be talking about his time with Vitesse.
Broja, who names Didier Drogba, Cristiano Ronaldo and the Brazilian Ronaldo as inspirations, has made big strides. He is stronger and has dazzled up front, scoring nine times and collecting two assists in the league. Broja has one of the best goals to minutes ratios for a teenager in Europe. Vitesse are fourth and face Ajax in the Dutch Cup final next month. Chelsea are paying attention and have assigned Tore Andre Flo as Broja’s loan mentor. “I’ve seen a lot of clips of Tore,” Broja says. “He understands how I feel on the pitch. He was a very good striker. He always checks up on me after games and gives his opinion.”
Training with Chelsea’s first team also helped Broja’s development. “You can tell the tempo straight away,” he says. “Everyone was at the top of their game. You learn from some of the best. You develop even by watching them. I learned how I can get past this defender or that defender. I’d watch things Giroud or Tammy Abraham did. We’d do a shooting drill and I’d pick up little movements.”
Broja is grateful to Lampard, who was replaced by Thomas Tuchel in January, for promoting academy players. “You see Mason, you see Tammy, you see Fikayo Tomori, you see Callum Hudson-Odoi,” he says. “I was a small kid watching them on the youth team and now they’re in the first team. I want to get to the level they’re at now.”
It is achievable. Albania, who won 1-0 away to Andorra on Thursday, gave Broja his senior debut last September. It was a big moment for him. He was born in England, but wanted to play for Albania. “My parents were born in Albania,” he says. “I have Albanian blood. The majority of my family are in Albania. I only have a few cousins in England. We have a house there. We used to go there every year. It’s a very big part of me. My parents came to England at a young age for us. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am now.
“I didn’t play for any English youth teams. I was with the Albania Under-17s, 19s and 21s. I did get a call from England and I was born here. There was a decision I had to make. I just went with my ‘home town’. My parents said: ‘It’s your career’.”
Now he faces England, who have Chelsea’s Mount and Reece James. “I’ve been talking to my parents about it,” Broja says. “England’s the biggest game of my career. They’ve been saying: ‘You’ve just got to work hard and show people who you are.’”
Family matters to Broja, who remembers his father coming home from work and taking him for extra one-on-one training sessions. “He wanted to get the best out of me,” Broja says. “He didn’t mind if he got injured. He wanted to make sure I did something good. It was the same with my mum. They’ll go to the end just to help me.”