SONJA NIKCEVIC / AIPS**: There was always going to be tension in a match as historically and politically charged as Serbia v Albania but Tuesday night’s ugly events illustrated how much football’s governing bodies have their work cut out refereeing between sport and politics.
The two neighbours – entrenched in a decades-long stalemate over ethnicity, territory and keyword Kosovo – had been drawn together in five-team Group I of UEFA’s qualifying competition for Euro 2016.
The two met for the first time in more than half a century in Belgrade and had played only 41 minutes before the match was abandoned after a brawl on and off the pitch involving players and substitutes of both teams, fans and specially-armed security forces.
The fans in question were only Serb since the local football federation had informed UEFA that it could not guarantee the safety of any visiting Albanian fans. The Albanian federation accepted that but a number of their fans travelled to Belgrade despite not being able to attend the match and reportedly let loose three drones in the city centre.
During those first 40 minutes of football, Serbia were the better of the two teams, inspired by the vocal fans who filled every inch of FK Partizan Stadium (not the case for the ‘qualifier friendly’ against France).
After a dismal 1-1 draw in their opening qualifier against Armenia, Serbia wanted to redeem themselves against an Albanian team who had been the group surprise with a win and draw against Portugal and Denmark.
The final score, however, was never to be known. The spark to ignite an already charged atmosphere was a drone flying over the stadium, carrying a Greater Albanian flag (including Kosovo, parts of Greece, Macedonia,
Serbia and Montenegro) and bearing the faces of Albanian nationalists plus the message ‘autochthonous’, meaning indigenous.
A moment of stunned silence was followed by outrage throughout the stands. What could have ended as a arguably minor incident escalated when young Serb defender Stefan Mitrovic pulled down the flag.
Several Albanian players ran to take it from him, after which all-round chaos ensued.
After an uncertain delay of a half an hour, English referee Martin Atkinson abandoned the game, with the score at 0-0.
Serbia captain Branislav Ivanovic was the only player to speak to the press, saying: “What happened is something we can’t comprehend at the moment.
“All I can say is that we wanted to carry on. We shielded the Albanian players every step of the way in the tunnel. The Albanian team said they were unfit physically and mentally to carry on after talking to the officials.”
Serb media outlets reported that Olsi Rama – the brother of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama – was arrested in the VIP box of the stadium on suspicion of instigating the event and was allegedly found with a remote control. He was later released.
UEFA delegate Harry Been said: “It is a regretful situation on which we will report – the referee, myself and the security advisor. The circumstances were such that we couldn’t continue the match.
“You all saw what happened and I cannot comment on who is to blame or what to blame. I will submit a report with my colleagues to UEFA and UEFA will decide what will happen further.”
UEFA has since opened disciplinary proceedings, with both federations at risk of severe sanctions.
The two federations have until next Wednesday to respond to the charges, with a decision on punishments set to be issued the following day. Serbia may have to play their next qualifier at home to Denmark on November 14 behind closed doors.
Political considerations had led UEFA to ensure the group separations of national teams from Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Spain and Gibraltar. However, relations between Serbia and Albania had not been considered so delicate. Clearly this will be reviewed.
A UEFA spokesman said the three criteria used to determine whether two countries should be kept apart were whether they had normal diplomatic relations, whether there was an ongoing military or armed conflict and whether there had been a request made by either national association to be kept apart.
Serbia and Albania had normal diplomatic relations, were not engaged in an armed conflict and had not requested to be kept apart.
He added: “The match is analysed by UEFA’s international committee. When the draw was made there was no negative reaction from either side at the time. But both associations agreed not to take their own supporters to away matches. UEFA fully supported this move.
“All the conditions were met at the time. There was no clear reason why these teams should be kept apart.”
UEFA president Michel Platini said he was saddened by the violence, adding: “Football is supposed to bring people together and our game should not be mixed with politics of any kind. The scenes in Belgrade were inexcusable.”
FIFA president Sepp Blatter wrote on Twitter: “Football should never be used for political messages. I strongly condemn what happened in Belgrade.”
Serb federation statement:
It was a well-planned political diversion and, at the end of the day, it was the key factor which led to the match being abandoned.
All Mitrovic wanted to do was remove the flag so that the match could continue but the Albanian players attacked him. We also wish to point out that the home Serbia fans displayed no offensive banners at any point in time.
However, there is no excuse for the pitch invasion by some individuals and after reviewing the footage the FSS will press charges against the offenders.
In other matches . . .
Also in Group I, Cristiano Ronaldo headed a stoppage-time winner for Portugal to snatch a 1-0 triumph over Denmark in Copenhagen.
Ronaldo had been a doubt after limping out of the weekend friendly loss in France, but his goal gave Portugal their first points after their shock home loss to Albania last month.
John O’Shea marked his 100th senior cap for the Republic of Ireland by scrambling a last-gasp equaliser against Germany in Gelsenkirchen in Group D.
The world champions were still smarting from Saturday’s 2-0 defeat in Poland but looked to have sealed the three points when Toni Kroos fired a low 71st-minute opener past David Forde.
Irish substitute Wes Hoolahan saw a late goal-bound effort blocked by defender Erik Durm before O’Shea pounced to prod home from close range with the last kick of the game.
In the same group Gordon Strachan’s Scotland withstood some serious late pressure to earn a gutsy 2-2 draw against Poland in Warsaw.
The Scots responded to Krzysztof Maczynski’s 12th-minute opener by surging ahead with goals from Shaun Maloney and Steven Naismith.
Arkadiusz Milik equalised for the hosts in the 76th minute and substitute Sebastian Mila missed a glorious chance to win it for the Poles in the dying minutes.
Georgia eased to a 3-0 win over Gibraltar in the third match in Group D, with goals from Nikoloz Gelashvili, Tornike Okriashvili and Jaba Kankava.
Northern Ireland maintained their 100 per cent record in Group F with a surprise 2-0 win over Greece in Piraeus.
Jamie Ward put the visitors in front early and Kyle Lafferty extended their lead after the break as Michael O’Neill’s men made it three wins out of three.
Two second-half goals from Bogdan Stancu saw Romania to a 2-0 win overFinland in Helsinki, and Adam Szalai scored the only goal of the game as Hungary edged a 1-0 win in the Faroe Islands.
In the only game in Group E, Switzerland cruised to a 4-0 win in San Marino with two early strikes from Haris Seferovic and further goals from Blerim Dzemaili and Xherdan Shaqiri.
** AIPS is the international sports journalists’ association with 10,000 members worldwide. More information: www.AIPSmedia.com
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