Last week, the world was shocked to witness what happened at a soccer match between Serbia and Albania. This week, the consequences are still unfolding.
Sitting in front of the TV, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Serbia, which is in line to join the European Union, turned a soccer game in Belgrade into a battlefield. The nation that unleashed a huge wave of violence in the Balkans two decades ago showed once again that it is stuck in its past, when hatred and racism against Albania and its people were officially tolerated.
And make no mistake, what happened last week was officially tolerated. Before the match, under the excuse of heightened security, Albanian fans were not allowed to travel to Belgrade or to enter Partizan stadium. Albanian flags and national sports insignia were also not allowed.
When both teams entered the pitch, Serbian fans started chanting slogans like “Kill the Albanians” and “Death to Albanians.” They even burned NATO flags, a protest against territorial guarantees for the region of Kosovo, formerly under Serbian domination, where the ethnicity is predominately Albanian. The chants didn’t stop even when Albania’s national anthem was played.
Then, 41 minutes into the game, a drone carrying a homemade flag displaying national symbols of Albania flew over the stadium, and an incandescent situation turned violent. Against all the security regulations of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and despite the presence of 4,000 police officers, fans were allowed to pour onto the field. Many of them attacked Albanian players, who ended up bruised, cut and bloodied.
Despite thousands of photos and amateur videos of the brawl that were posted on social media and featured on many media outlets, Serbian authorities tried to paint a completely different picture of what the world had witnessed.
Instead of condemning the racist spectacle, they went to the UEFA and said they weren’t at fault.
The lobbying had its effect. The next morning, a representative of the European Union blamed it all on the drone that had flown the Albanian flag , calling it “a political message.” So did UEFA’s French president, Michel Platini, who expressed concerns that the drone “could have carried a bomb.”
Both officials failed to note that for 40 minutes, the game was played in an impossible atmosphere, with calls from the entire stadium to “exterminate Albanians.”
Amid all the tension, Albania's prime minister postponed a visit to Serbia that was supposed to herald a new level of goodwill between the nations.
The question is: What happens next?
Unofficial sources from UEFA have indicated that they may decide on Thursday to penalize both teams and allow the game to be replayed – in a neutral venue and without fans.
This would be totally unfair, given the precedents of Serbian racism in previous soccer games.
Instead, UEFA should punish the Partizan stadium and the Soccer Federation of Serbia and declaring the Albanian team the winner. It’s the least it can do.
What is needed is a strong message that will tell the Serbs and, indeed, all Balkan citizens who dream and hope to enter Europe that such racism and decayed chauvinistic spirit will not be tolerated.
A new era of peace and stability is required in the region; it should start with a firm stand here.