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Serbia-Albania brawl reminder football isn't a stand-in for political battles

By now, you've probably seen this

And I'm sorry you had to watch it. Because what you witnessed was football being manhandled, shoved up against the wall and abused for another purpose: to make a political point.

Serbia vs. Albania was always going to be an at-risk game, given the situation in Kosovo. To the 108 UN members who have recognized it, it's an independent nation. To those who have not, it's still an autonomous province of Serbia. You have Serbians living in Kosovo and Kosovars, most of whom are ethnic Albanians, across the border in Serbia. In a region doused in the lighter fluid of nationalism, violence (a Serb border guard was killed just last month), prejudice and territorial claims dating back nearly a thousand years, the risk of trouble was evident. Particularly when you throw in the fact that there's a group of violent hooligans -- criminals might be a better word for them, given their track record -- who regularly turn out wherever Serbia plays.

UEFA recognized this. The question was how to handle it. Where there is the potential for politically motivated violence, teams are sometimes kept apart in draws. It happened in this very draw with Spain and Gibraltar (given the latter's recent accession to FIFA) and Armenia and Azerbaijan (who are technically still at war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh). Russia and Georgia were to have been kept apart as well given the conflict in 2008, but both countries' governments insisted that there would be no problem if they faced each other. (On the other hand, it's safe to assume that had the draw taken place this summer, rather than in February, Ukraine and Russia would have been kept separate.) Israel, in case you were wondering, plays in Europe and not in Asia for that very reason.

It was decided not to keep Serbia and Albania apart. And you can see the logic behind it. Serbia and Croatia, who, lest we forget, both have a nationalist hooligan element and fought a vicious civil war not that long ago, faced off in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. Visiting fans were banned, there was an enormous police presence, but ultimately both legs passed without major incident.

UEFA chose to let Tuesday's qualifier go ahead after receiving security assurances and decreeing that there would be no visiting supporters allowed in the stadium.

Was it a mistake?

Serbian fans burned a NATO flag as part of the ugly scenes during the European qualifying match between Serbia and Albania. UEFA, meanwhile, defend their decision to play in Belgrade.

Hindsight is always 20-20, of course.

You knew there were going to be demonstrations before kickoff, and there were, including the burning of a NATO flag. In 1999, NATO authorized 11 weeks' worth of airstrikes over Serbia. NATO said it was intervening to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, with the region mired in insurgency and counterinsurgency.

You knew there was going to be nasty chanting against the other side, and there was.

But it was felt that, without visiting supporters, the potential for violence could be contained. Four thousand police were deployed to Partizan Belgrade's ground, a ratio of one cop for every eight spectators.

"We'll have a double security check, metal detectors and will react to any sign of troubles in the stands," Nikola Popovac, Belgrade's deputy chief of police, told Serbian media ahead of the game. "We are prepared for everything."

And, in truth, it probably would have passed without major incident if not for what happened four minutes before halftime. A drone was flown into the stadium. Attached to it was a flag depicting so-called Greater Albania, a would-be nation incorporating all regions where Albanians live, including not just Albania and Kosovo, but parts of Serbia as well.

It was the equivalent of yelling "fire!" in a crowded cinema.

The drone hovered mockingly over the pitch for a few beats, before descending. Serbia's Stefan Mitrovic grabbed the flag, prompting a brief melee. Albanian forward Bekim Balaj emerged with it and was carrying it off the pitch when he was met by someone -- probably a fan, pictures are inconclusive -- who struck him with a plastic chair. This set off a brawl on the pitch which, in truth, was briefer and less violent than you would expect (though, worryingly, at least one steward appears to strike an Albanian player). Within 15 seconds of the Balaj chair shot -- check the video -- fighting appeared to have stopped on the pitch. To their credit, many of the players on both sides tried to remain calm and defuse the situation.

But then the pictures show a sadly familiar figure walking on to the pitch, followed by his henchmen. It's this guy, Ivan Bogdanov. The fact that he has a cult following among certain web-based degenerates is worrying enough (wonder how long it took pond scum to set up this Facebook page?). He's the guy who, in 2010, wreaked havoc at the Italy vs. Serbia Euro 2012 qualifier in Genoa. 

At that point, referee Martin Atkinson had no choice but to call off the game. The fact that these gentlemen were freely walking on the pitch left him no alternative. Albanian players raced toward the relative safety of the tunnel. Along the way, all sorts of projectiles were thrown at them, despite the efforts of some Serb players (led by Aleksandar Kolarov) to protect them. Several Serb hooligans also jumped the fence and attacked the Albanians as they tried to get into the tunnel.

How to sort out this mess?

First and foremost, blame has to be placed with the Serbian authorities. (Actually, first and foremost, blame lies with Bogdanov's crew, but then he's a lost cause). They were charged with guaranteeing the safety of the game and they weren't able to do so. Bogdanov should not have been in the stadium. This is a guy who was released from prison in April 2013, after serving 23 months for the 2006 assault on two police officers. When you have 4,000 cops in a stadium, you'd expect them to spot and deal with the most recognizable hooligan in the world. And, equally, you expect them to prevent pitch invasions, not to allow Bogdanov and his fellow degenerates to calmly walk on the pitch as if he was walking into his own backyard.

The authorities failed, and that must have consequences.

Then there's the issue of the drone, which served as the catalyst for the ugly affair. Serbian state television reported that the brother of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama was arrested in the VIP section of the stadium on suspicion of instigating the drone stunt. Albanian officials denied the report

Whatever the case, what's obvious is that someone acquired the drone, stuck the inflammatory flag on it and piloted it into the stadium. Whoever it was ought to go straight to prison. You can't even begin to describe what an evil and irresponsible act it was. It was calculated to get a reaction. It's not just about the safety of the players. It's the fact that there were women, children, old people and tens of thousands of innocent bystanders in the stadium. You shudder to think what would have happened had there been a full-scale riot followed by a crush or stampede.

UEFA should be taking a close look at how the Serbian police handle the situation from here. With so many cops, at the very least you expect the arrest and prosecution of the vast majority of pitch invaders and missile throwers. That's what they need to do if they want to show they're serious about this.

There will be calls to kick Serbia out of all competitions. There always are. I'm not sure that's the right answer. I don't see how punishing the players on the pitch -- apart from those who misbehaved, but they were a minority -- remedies the situation. A more appropriate punishment is games behind closed doors and the forfeiture of this match.

UEFA evidently should do more to monitor the security arrangements for at-risk games, including the return leg in Albania, if it ever takes place. They're the ones organizing the competition. They hold the power. If they're not satisfied that local police can handle it, they could go so far as to hire their own private security where applicable and send the bill to the local FA. If it means playing behind closed doors, so be it. Heck, if it means flying the two teams somewhere else to play the game, do it. Whatever it takes.

But what I hope they don't do is give in. The rioting at the Italy vs. Serbia game in 2010 was prompted by the desire of Bogdanov's crew to get his country kicked out of football, owing to some stupid dispute he had with Serb authorities. Kicking them out, raising the white flag and saying we can't possibly stage football matches here means Bogdanov has won. The losers would be millions of peace-loving Serb football fans who deserve better.

The message has to be clear. To all sides. You've mourned your dead, you've shed your tears, you're entitled to your grievances. You're entitled to hostility, you're even entitled to hate. We are not going to judge that.

But what you will NOT be allowed to do is to turn a football pitch into a proxy battlefield.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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