With the scoreline 0-0, a low-key affair erupted in the 41st minute when a drone carrying a ‘Greater Albania’ flag hovered over the stadium and was eventually seized upon by Serbia’s Stefan Mitrovic on its approach to landing. A mass brawl involving players and some of the 20,000 Serbian fans entering the pitch ensued, leading English referee Martin Atkinson to abandon the game.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter reaffirmed his belief that football should never be used for political messages, but swiftly condemning the behaviour of those responsible for the clashes is not unprecedented when it comes to matches held in a country seemingly bound by its own rules.
As recently as last month, the same stadium hosted a Europa League stalemate between Partizan Belgrade and Tottenham, in a match that shall be remembered more for an anti-Semitic banner, fireworks and a laser pointer descending from the home section than events on the field. A daunting atmosphere had been anticipated by Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, who decided to leave Danny Rose at home in wake of racist abuse the full back received when England Under-21s visited Serbia in 2012.
UEFA investigated the melee and monkey chants which marred that European Championship qualifier, but the resulting £65,000 fine – in addition to one match being played behind closed doors – was slammed by the English FA and British government as a ‘paltry’ sanction. The latest shame suggests the partial closure of the stadium for the forthcoming European fixture with Besiktas will do little to detract the mindless minority who have now tarnished the nation on a much larger scale.
The use of a drone carrying a political message to enrage a sensitive crowd should also be condemned, but as the scars of political turmoil that engulfed the Balkans two decades ago show few signs of healing, UEFA need to stop unfurling an offensive banner of their own: ‘Politics should be kept out of football (unless it’s played in the Balkans)’.
UEFA have opened disciplinary cases against the Serbian and Albanian Football Associations, but precisely how the confederation can tar the latter with the same brush seems illogical. Try palming off the joke ‘who drone it?’ as banter in Belgrade. Was it controlled by the brother of Albania’s Prime Minister? There are even suggestions that the Albanian squad were involved in the stunt. But not only is discovering the perpetrator for the drone unlikely but finding the apt punishment to fit the crime will inevitably lead to further tensions.
President Michel Platini released a statement on Wednesday morning, which read: “Football is supposed to bring people together and our game should not be mixed with politics of any kind. The scenes in Belgrade last night were inexcusable.”
FIFA Vice President Jim Boyce added his voice, lamenting the most recent example of football’s inability to overcome all barriers in Serbia by saying: “It’s very sad once again that politics is being brought into sport. Unfortunately, it’s a fact of life in certain parts of the world. Obviously, the UEFA disciplinary committee will look into this matter and I think it will impose very serious sanctions.”
While the inept security levels at a fixture which always promised hostility is likely to incite much of the dialogue exchanged by the committee, making a real example of a highly ranked footballing nation ahead of a tournament designed to encourage perennial underachievers would ensure the message of zero tolerance is truly received. The only surprise of last night was that none of the Albanian players were seriously injured. Banning Serbia from participating at Euro 2016 is not out of the question; imposing harsher sanctions must be enforced to discourage fans of other nations from similar misbehaviour in future.
The Albanian squad was welcomed home by government officials at the Mother Teresa Airport in Tirana late last night: their mood in stark contrast to the sense of euphoria as they embarked from the capital following a promising start to their qualification campaign. Buoyed by victory in Portugal on a sun-kissed September evening, a battling draw against Denmark heightened belief that the nation might be on the verge of qualifying for their first major tournament. The Eagles – as the team are nicknamed – were brought back down to earth by an ultra wielding a plastic chair. It’s time UEFA did more than just place the Serbian FA in the naughty seat.