Serbia v Albania: surreal provocation and violence show lessons not learned
Danko Lazovic was among the first to notice. Martin Atkinson had paused proceedings in Partizan Stadium for a second time, another flare having been thrown in proximity to an Albanian player by a spiky home crowd, when Lazovic grabbed his shoulder and pointed up towards the clear, dark night.
Atkinson was slow to cotton on; most others had beaten him to it by now and the air had fallen thick – thicker – with tension and pregnant uncertainty. Like an insect crawling across a movie still, a remote-controlled drone was making its way up and down the far, Serbian half of the pitch, buzzing high above the fans and then swooping downwards, suspending beneath it a flag via two long wires that flickered in and out of sight amid the backdrop of sky, stands and floodlights. But it was not too difficult to focus on the tapestry itself as it sank down towards the pitch. The black and red flag bore the Albanian insignia and a map of the notional “Greater Albania” territory and, from the moment of impact, it was clear enough that the evening – and perhaps a few other things – could not be the same again.
The vision – as surreal as anything you might be confronted by at an international football match – had a dreamlike quality at first but, once the Serbian defender Stefan Mitrovic had leapt to receive the flag and was rounded upon by Albanian players hotly seeking to retrieve their national symbol, reality quickly bit. By any standards, the violence that followed was shocking. The number of marks overstepped during the next two and a half minutes may keep Uefa busy for weeks: it will want to consider the fan who attacked Bekim Balaj with a chair as he carried the flag towards the away dugout, the supporter who attempted to kick one player in the head as the team fled down the tunnel never to return, even the intensity of Lorik Cana’s retaliation on Balaj’s assailant – and these are just for starters.
It compounded the sense of despair that had dogged this fixture, Albania’s first visit to Belgrade since 1967, from the beginning. Away fans were barred from attending this or next year’s return in Elbasan, Uefa intervening after the respective FAs had been unable to agree on the personal details required from ticket holders. If it felt then that an opportunity had been missed for bilateral cooperation – particularly in anticipation of the prime minister Edi Rama’s visit to Belgrade, the first by an Albanian premier since 1948 – on 22 October, then there now seems something Kafkaesque about the spiral of blame and counter-blame, accusation and counter-accusation, that Tuesday night’s events will almost certainly prompt.
“We came to Belgrade to play football, but we were physically attacked by the Serbian supporters,” Cana said afterwards. “We just wanted to take the flag, and everything would be under control if the stadium security had prevented the supporters from attacking our players. I was defending my team-mate, I have injuries to my face, as does Taulant Xhaka. They asked us to play in front of empty stands [instead of abandonment] – however, we did not feel good because of our injuries.”
The picture of innocence perhaps ignores what might have transpired if Mitrovic, who had done little more than collect the object that was delaying proceedings, had been afforded the opportunity to remove it from the pitch unhindered. But perhaps blood pressures had already been raised beyond the point of no return. Albania had entered the pitch to a predictable chorus of howls, whistles and things far less edifying – “Kill, kill the Albanian” and “Fuck, fuck Albania” were the soundtrack to the opening stages and a command-and-response routine of “Kosovo!” “Serbia!” between the east and west stands occupied much of the warm-up. Nobody would have expected goads of greater refinement but, as Lazovic and Zoran Tosic both slid in late on defenders in the opening minutes and Andi Lila took a hard ball in the face from Dusan Tadic, perhaps Albania’s players were being moved towards a knife edge that Mitrovic’s grab pushed them off.
Yet the headline piece of provocation was threaded in the visitors’ colours, and foreign media were quickly scrambling for the history books – and the dictionary – upon deciphering the word printed at the bottom of it. “Autochtonous” broadly refers to an indigenous inhabitant of a place – someone not descended from migrants or settlers. It seemed to be a jibe at the Serbs’ claims on Kosovo, whose population is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian, and the photographs depicted on either side were equally inflammatory. One was of Isa Boljetini, an Albanian nationalist who led uprisings against the Ottomans and the Serbs in 1912 and 1913. The other was of Ismail Qemali, who is regarded as the founder of the modern Albanian state, whose independence was declared in 1912.
The connotations were deep-set; the words and pictures shorthand enough. And whoever handled the drone, which the simplest of research suggested is unlikely to have had a range of more than 800 metres from its controller, had certainly not popped off to the shops during the first half in answer to the home supporters’ taunts. Serbian media jumped on an early hobbyhorse: the drone, they said, had been controlled by Orfi Rama, brother of Edi, from the VIP section. He had, so the story went, been arrested. It would be an incredible tale if true and it grew some traction on Wednesday, the Serbian government saying that he had been apprehended – on unclear grounds – and subsequently released (quickly enough, it appears, to join the homeward-bound Albanian delegation). A group of Macedonians has attempted to take credit in the meantime, although there is nothing especially persuasive about their claim.
Pointing fingers take up too much space in this part of the world, though, and it would be as well to dwell upon the simple questions that Uefa will surely want answered. How did the drone make it into a stadium whose every guest – journalists included – was searched by at least one line of stewards? How was it allowed to stay in the air for so long – and what if it had harboured something even more destructive? How did a thick ring of Belgrade police – apparently 3,500 had been deployed for the match – which swelled to implausible numbers after the skirmishes, allow so many supporters on to the pitch?
There is also the thought that Serbia is on exceptionally thin ice with Uefa – the most recent of several issues being last month’s controversy in the same stadium when – and that this may be a mis-step too far, regardless of who started the stupidity. It is difficult to see that this abandoned match will be awarded to either side – nobody comes out of it looking remotely good and it would seem a mistake to hold either party solely responsible. A behind-closed-doors replay looks a reasonable bet, as does the prospect of Serbia’s own doors being closed to home fixtures for some time.
Answers, it must be hoped, will follow Uefa’s inquiry but, for now, the dust has to settle and Belgrade woke up to a Wednesday morning of severe discomfort . Few were especially willing to delve deep into analysis of what had passed. One official from a leading club, in a meeting on a different matter, prefaced the conversation with a wish not to be asked about Tuesday’s events. There was a prevailing sense of resignation that the book will be thrown at , with perceptions ranging between glum resignation that the problems faced by the Serbian game appear systemic and without obvious cure, and a pre-emptive feeling of victimisation by Uefa.
Such feelings are only fuelled by the kind of rambling statement produced by the Serbian FA on Wednesday afternoon, a tiny fragment of which pondered: “Now we ask: how the world, many politicians, EU and Uefa representatives would react if such a crazy, shameless scenario was to happen in Albania and directed by our ‘officials’?” If its next breath produced a fair point that the sight of thousands flocking to Tirana’s airport to greet their team like returning war heroes had been thoroughly unseemly, its stated expectation that should be awarded a 3-0 win and dark mutterings about an “‘Albanian Way’ of acting against football” seemed like the kind of aggressive, polarising rhetoric that had already served to take this relationship nowhere.
If history repeats itself first as [footballing] tragedy and then as farce, then perhaps a warning sign had already flashed up. Back in March, Kosovo hosted its first official international match against Haiti in the divided Albanian-Serbian city of Mitrovica. Were the location not contentious enough, there was something more to mull over during the second half of an otherwise dull game when a paraglider swooped low over the pitch, bringing a vivid Albanian flag into its midst. It had a captive audience – no Serbs had attended the game – and there was little hint of trouble. Regardless, the memory of it abets the depressing conclusion that Tuesday night’s unseemly mess of violence and provocation showed nobody on either side has been willing to learn many lessons at all.