Abandonment of European qualifier is the latest chapter in a long history of grudges and conflict in the Balkans
• Uefa launches inquiry into ‘inexcusable’ clashes
• Surreal violence shows lessons not learned
• Serbia v Albania qualifier abandoned after brawl
In the Balkans, more than anywhere else, football is the continuation of war by other means. There is a long history of violence underlying the chaos in the Belgrade stadium – this is just the first time it has taken the very 21st-century form of a drone conflict.
Every scene on Tuesday night was freighted with centuries-old grudges and rivalries that last erupted into armed conflict in the 1998-9 war between Serbia and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, which left 10,000 people dead and was halted only by a Nato bombing campaign.
The map suspended from the drone showed a map of a “Greater Albania” including Kosovo and parts of Macedonia. On either side were portraits of two heroes from Albania’s war of independence against the Ottoman Empire. The country that the Albanians thought they were going to get after the collapse of the Ottomans was cut in half at an international conference in London in 1912-13, and the Albanians have never forgotten.
Similarly, the Serbs have not forgotten, or accepted, the loss of Kosovo. Serbia, and its Russian allies, have not recognised Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Serb nationalists regard Kosovo as the birthplace of their culture, and the most important date in the Serb nationalist calendar commemorates the loss of a 1389 battle to the Ottomans in Kosovo, seen as the beginning of the end for greater Serbia. The notorious Serb hooligan who led the pitch invasion on Tuesday night, Ivan Bogdanov, is not just part of the hardcore Red Star Belgrade fans, the Ultra Boys. He is also part of Movement 1389, a far-right nationalist group which has been involved in rioting against Kosovo Albanians and their western backers.
In that sense, Bogdanov is continuing a tradition of mingling football hooliganism with ultra-nationalist politics. The first really violent incident leading up to the bloody wars of the 90s was a 1990 clash between Zagreb and Belgrade fans in the Croatian capital. The most violent paramilitary leader of the Croatian and Bosnian wars, Zeljko Raznatovic, known universally as Arkan, was the leader of the most violent Red Star fans, the delije, who he recruited to form the core of his paramilitary group, the Tigers, who murdered and pillaged their way across the wreckage of Yugoslavia, before Arkan was assassinated in Belgrade in 2000. Bogdanov is sometimes described as Arkan’s heir apparent, ideologically if not militarily.
It was left to the respective team captains to remind people that it was supposed to have been a football match rather than the latest skirmish in the Serbian-Albanian territorial struggle. The Albanian captain, Lorik Cana, went out of his way to thank his Serbian counterpart, Branislav Ivanovic, for protecting his team on the field.
Ivanovic said after the game: “What’s most important to us is that we stood by the Albanian representation as a team and supported them. We regret that football was presented as a secondary issue here.”
PHOTO: Serbia’s Stefan Mitrovic grabs a flag showing a map of ‘Greater Albania’ flown by a remotely operated drone during the Euro 2016 qualifier between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade. Photograph: Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images