Soccer’s War

by Mario Lekovic

Some soccer fans are known as rowdy, unruly hooligans that will fight to the death to support their team and unnerve rivals. We’ve seen endless clips where fans have been involved in pre-, post-, and even in-game altercations with supporters of other teams or the opposing players themselves. For some reason, in some soccer-crazed countries and especially underdeveloped ones, these hooligans are looked at as heroes, and for the most part go unpunished. It used to be extremely bad in England until the unfortunate Hillsborough disaster that left 96 dead in 1989. Since then, the political bodies of the English Premier League set up strict laws for boisterous fans, leading to immediate arrests and bans from stadiums.

Due to a incident of extreme hooliganism, the Euro 2016 Qualifying match between Serbia and Albania on October 14 set both of those countries back umpteen years. The two countries are in the same qualifying group for the UEFA Euro 2016 finals tournament, and shouldn’t be at all. The first problem is that those two countries with lingering enmities are allowed to be in the same group. I know we shouldn’t mix politics and sports but people do – all the damn time. Given the bloody history and reignited hatred between these two countries over the Kosovo area, they should have never been allowed to play against each other in their respective countries and with their fans watching. It seems harsh, but trust me it would have been better for everyone. I know in America it’s hard to grasp the concept of soccer or even crazy fandom, but in these countries, along with countless others, soccer is bigger than religion and club teams are greater than biblical characters.

This is what soccer needs? No...
This is what soccer needs? No…

For me as a fan of soccer, and as a Serbian from the region, the thought of these two playing against each other was scary. I knew there would be problems and there was a tangible tension leading up to the match. My instinct proved to be right. During the game, a drone controlled by Albanian supporters flew over the Belgrade stadium carrying a flag of Greater Albania (not an actual country). It was more so to provoke the Serbian supporters then it was to support the Albania team because the “Greater Albania” flag included parts of Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro. Though the drone idea was genius and creative, it did what no soccer loving fan wanted it to do, caused a brawl.

Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic took the flag down and all hell broke loose. Albanian players rushed him to take the flag and then Serbian fans rushed the field to attack the Albanian player, going so far as to hit one in the body with a chair and to kick them as they were exiting the stadium. I see three major flaws here: How the hell did the organization allow the drone to fly over the Partizan stadium? How the hell did the organization allow the players to rush the field? And why the hell is Mitrovic a national hero all of a sudden?

Not only was the 2014 match abandoned, the Albanian embassy in Montenegro was attacked and fights between Serbians and Albanians broke out throughout Europe. Did UEFA and UEFA President Michel Platini learn nothing from the 1999 match where Albania and Serbia played each other in Skoplje, Macedonia? The match was played in the midst of the Kosovo debacle. Hate slurs could be heard spewed from both sides and things got ugly on the street after the match.

Yet back to this year, Serbia demanded it should be awarded the three points for the match. Albania demanded the same three points. I guess both sides have a compelling case. Serbia is right in saying the Albanian team didn’t step out onto the pitch for the second half, which is an automatic forfeit. Albania is right in saying the players feared for their safety so they didn’t come back onto the pitch. The sad part is this has nothing to do with three points. Who cares about the damn match at this point? People’s life got ruined because of this. The tension between the two countries is now reignited and there seems to be no resolution in sight.

Sure, UEFA can make the two sides replay the match in a neutral country without fans, and do the same for the second match that’s supposed to take place in Albania. They can ban fans from the two countries to attend matches for the next ten years. Does that really fix anything? What good does that do for the Albanian shop-keeper in Belgrade who was and will continue to be terrorized? What good does it do for Serbians in Albania or Kosovo? What good does it do for the two sides in diaspora?

The culprit
The culprit

What the fans don’t realize is that they are hurting their team and their country. The teams will lose points, can potentially be kicked out of the tournament, and will definitely be hit with a financial punishment. Was the drone stunt really worth it? Was it worth it to hit the player with a chair? At the end of the day, nothing successful was accomplished. Children can no longer go with their parents to these kinds of games for fear of being beaten or pummeled. Most of the players have lucrative careers in big leagues, they didn’t and don’t have to risk being attacked on the pitch when playing for their country. The only positive thing about this incident is that some players showed their human side. I won’t name any names for fear of people believing I’m biased, but there are videos all over for everyone to see.

What’s even worse is that these teams can both make it to the knock-out rounds. Add in Montenegro, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and you potentially have the spark for igniting the next civil war in the Balkans. Though it was in 1991, hatred and misunderstanding, covered with continued propaganda still run deep in ALL of the countries.

It’s not what soccer needs and it’s definitely not what those regions need.