A Euro 2016 football qualifier match between Serbia and Albania, held this week in Belgrade, ended violently, revealing underlying tensions between the two countries. EURACTIV Serbia reports.
The match, held on 14 October, was abandoned in the 42nd minute, after a remote-controlled drone appeared above the field, carrying a banner with a map of greater Albania, causing a revolt in the stands.
Players got in a brawl and fans started breaking onto the pitch, forcing the referee to stop the game.
The incident fired up tensions between Belgrade and Tirana, stirring speculation about the possible political motives behind it in view of the forthcoming visits to Serbia of Russian president Vladimir Putin and of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.
The EU’s response was to state the obvious – that politics must stay outside stadiums. But the incident illustrated just how sensitive the issue of reconciliation between the two nations remains, although the authorities are officially determined to improve relations.
The media reported that the brother of the Albanian Prime Minister, Olsi Rama, was brought in for questioning over suspicions that he helped organise the incident. He was released, and departed from Serbia immediately. Upon his arrival in Tirana, Rama denied any connection with the incident.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA President Michel Platini both condemned the events at the Partisan Football Club stadium, insisting that football must not be used for political purposes.
UEFA stated on 15 October that it will start disciplinary proceedings against the football associations of Serbia and Albania because of the skirmish.
The atmosphere was tense in the days ahead of the match. Bearing in mind possible unrest, UEFA banned Albanian supporters from attending the match for security reasons.
This was the first time that the Albanian national football team played in Belgrade since 1967, while Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama is scheduled to visit Serbia next week, as the first Albanian head of state to visit after seven decades.
The incident poisoned the atmosphere ahead of this visit, which was supposed to contribute to the improvement of cooperation in the region, and of relations between the two countries. On 15 October, Spend Ahmeti, the mayor of Pristina, urged the Albanian prime minister not to travel to Belgrade.
In Albania, and in other countries with Albanian communities, especially in Kosovo, the decision to halt the match was celebrated as a victory.
A sharp diplomatic reaction was presented to the Albanian ambassador in Belgrade, Ilir Bochka, at the Serbian Foreign Ministry on 15 October, regarding what Belgrade called a provocation during the match.
The Ministry estimated that what appears to be meticulously planned incidents, such as the one involving the drone, seriously undermine the efforts for the building of relations of trust and cooperation in the region.
According to the statement, the Albanian ambassador was told that Serbia expects the Albanian officials to clearly condemn the incident, which would be the first and necessary step towards overcoming of the problem.
The Albanian Embassy, as the BETA agency was informed on 15 October, had “no comment” regarding the suspended match.
Prime Minister Aleksandar Vu?i? and President Tomislav Nikoli? said on the same day that the objective of those behind the scuffle was to provoke instability in the region.
Vu?i? described the incident as a grave political provocation, with three goals – to humiliate the Serbian nation, provoke lasting instability in Serbia and in the Balkans, and to influence politics in Serbia.
He reiterated that he will not accept shared responsibility in the report of the European Commission because, as Vu?i? already stressed on 14 October, he had warned Serbia’s EU partners about possible provocations.
Asked if the tussle was orchestrated in view of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Serbia, Vu?i? replied that he could not exclude that possibility.
Some analystssaid the drone episode revealed serious security flaws in a match considered to be a high risk event, which Serbian President Tomislav Nikoli? attended. The opposition Democratic Party requested the resignation of Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanovi?.
The Serbian prime minister estimated that there were no security flaws but still called for a review of the work done by all relevant bodies, from the Football Association of Serbia to the police.
Albanian PM: It was show of violence, racism
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said on Wednesday (15 October) that what had happened during the match was a show of violence and racism.
In an interview with The Voice of America in Albanian, Rama said that “football cannot be an instrument of politics,” casting doubts over his visit to Belgrade, scheduled for 22 October.
He further said that similar incidents could not happen in Albania, as the Albanians and his country would be an inspiration for the region.
“Albania and the Albanians do not stoop to that level,” he added.
The Albanian team was greeted at the Rinas airport by several Albanian ministers and thousands of fans.
EU: Politics is not to be conducted at stadiums
In a statement released on Wednesday (15 October), the European Union said it was “disappointed by the abandonment of the Serbia-Albania football match because of a provocation”.
The spokeswoman of EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, Maja Kocijan?i?, praised Serbian authorities for their professionalism in their handling of the situation. She particularly reiterated the importance of regional cooperation and the scheduled visit of the Albanian prime minister to Serbia.
“And what is the most important […] we believe that politics must not be conducted by provocations in stadiums,” Kocijan?i? said.
Ashton’s spokesperson said that the EU dismisses “the claims, presented in certain Serbian media, that it had any role in that.”
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Da?i? told the Blic daily that, throughout the day on 14 October, EU diplomats exerted pressure for the Albanian fans, whom the Serbian authorities wanted to keep at the airport, to be allowed on the stadium although they did not have tickets.
The US Embassy also denied involvement in the events at the match.
The Foreign Ministry of Albania announced that, on 16 October it had "convoked the Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia in Tirana, Mr. Miroljub Zari?, to deliver the letter of protest of the Albanian government on the events in Belgrade."
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Albania firmly rejects the political smearing undertaken by Serbia's key leaders against the Albanian people and state," the statement reads further.
The Foreign Ministry said recent statements by Serbian senior officials went "against the basic ethics of diplomatic relations and reciprocity of conduct, self-restraint and respect between sovereign states," adding that they did not "reflect the aspirations of an EU candidate country."
"Albania, as a NATO member and an EU candidate, faithfully follows the policy of cooperation, good neighborliness and democratic stability in the region, firmly believing that the Euro-Atlantic integration is the common path for the people and states in our region," the Foreign Ministry press release read.
The Albanian ambassador to Serbia Ilir Bocka stated on 16 October that preparations for the visit of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to Belgrade continued, and that he hoped the visit would go ahead as planned.
We are working toward the visit happening. The incident at the football match between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade on 14 October has made things complicated, but it will show the two sides' ability to overcome problems, the ambassador said at a news conference.
He stated that the embassy had no information about who was behind the incident with a remote-controlled aircraft during the match, and that he was waiting for further information about the event from the Serbian side.
Bocka said it was evident that the "provocation" had been well conceived by someone who wished to undermine the relations between the two countries and that "his country did not do it."
Asked to comment on the Serbian authorities' accusations about the Albanian side being responsible for the incident, Bocka said that this logic was faulty. Why would we tear down something that we are working to build, he asked.
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