Europeans care a lot about soccer. Like really, really care. That’s why the abandonment of the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying match between Serbia and Albania held in Serbia this past Tuesday came as such a shock. To sum things up, a drone carrying a pro-Albanian flag flew over the soccer pitch during the 41st minute of play, causing a frenzy amongst players and spectators alike. Serbian fans invaded the pitch and fought with Albanian players and fans, which led to the referee ending the game in a 0-0 tie before halftime. This clash brought the long standing and historic conflict between these two nations to the international forefront, and raised an interesting question of how exactly sport fits into and is affected by political conflict.
When these two nations were drawn in the same Group for qualifying, the public knew things could go bad. Tensions between Serbia and Albania have been high since the territory dispute over Kosovo, an ethnically Albanian province in Serbia that declared independence in 2008. Additionally, both Serbian and Albanian fans have had a long history of violence and racial abuse in relation to soccer matches. UEFA even banned Albanian fans from entering the stadium for this match for security reasons. But in a country that takes intense pride in their national football (soccer) team, their presence was going to be felt no matter where the game was held.
After Serbian defender Stefan Mitrovic pulled the flag down from out of the sky, the entire stadium erupted in a frenzy. Albanian players flocked to Mitrovic, which resulted in Serbian spectators invading the pitch and fighting with Albanian spectators and players alike. Albanian players were pelted with objects and fists, and had to quickly exit the pitch through the players tunnel. The amount of hostility present in this game shows how strongly international sports are tied with politics and preexisting political tension, a point Eric Dunning makes in his essay The Dynamics of Modern Sports. In this piece, Dunning states that “Contests such as the Olympics allow the representatives of different nations to compete without killing one another, though the degree to which such contest are transformed from mock-fights into ‘real’ ones is a function, inter alia, of the pre-existing level of tension between the particular nation-states involved.” In this case, the pre existing level of tension between the particular nations was extremely high to begin with, and in turn caused real fights to break out.
Dunning also states in his text that “the international expansion of sport has been predicated on the growth of international interdependence and the existence, with several notable exceptions, of a fragile and unstable world peace”. This fragile and unstable world peace was put on the front line during the matchup between Serbia and Albania. International sports are supposed to be this way for nations to meet and compete without fighting and waring with one another, but this entire concept, this ideology of peaceful confrontation, was ground into the dirt the second Serbian spectators started fighting. Even before the actual fighting took place, Serbian spectators had thrown flares onto the pitch to serve as some sort of distraction. Most international soccer matches go off without a hitch, but when pre existing tensions between the two nations competing are as high as they are between Serbia and Albania, peaceful competition isn’t always so peaceful.
The following video shows just how violent the match became:
The European Union responded to this situation by saying “politics must stay outside stadiums”, but is this possible? FIFA president Sepp Blatter condemned what took place and insisted that football must not be used for political purposes, but when you’re talking about a match between two countries with as much bad blood and violent history as Serbia and Albania, you can’t expect politics to be put on hold. Serbians and Albanians don’t get along, and the fact that the two countries were competing against each other IN SERBIA to advance in the Euro 2016 Championship wasn’t going to halt that; it was simply adding fuel to the flame. People take pride in their nation, and Europeans take a lot of pride in their national football teams. When two countries that hate each other compete against each other, it’s not going to improve peaceful relations, it’s going to test them. Serbia and Albania failed this test, despite political efforts by both sides to help in the building of trust and cooperation in the region. This match proved that politics and international sport are entwined, and that, although Dunning’s idea of international sport being a peaceful occasion for countries to meet has merit in some circumstances, that’s not always how things plays out.