Albania – Serbia, tonight at 20.45 (local time), Elbasan Football Stadium, Elbasan, Albania
TIRANA: A year after their match in Belgrade was abandoned due to violence, Albania are set to host Serbia in a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier — with tensions rising on Wednesday before the visiting delegation had even reached its hotel.
Security is tight for the bitter rivals’ meeting on Thursday in the central city of Elbasan, after last October’s match had to be halted when violence broke out both on and off the field.
Serbian fans hurled smoke bombs and invaded the pitch to attack Albanian players after a drone carrying a nationalist flag bearing a map of “Greater Albania” flew over the stadium.
The incident escalated into a diplomatic row and highlighted the fragile ties between the two Balkan nations.
Bilateral relations have traditionally been frosty, especially since Kosovo, a former province of Serbia populated by mostly ethnic Albanians, declared independence in 2008 recognised by major world’s Western democracies.
Under pressure from Brussels, Serbia and Albania have worked to normalise relations, with both aspiring to join the European Union.
But Thursday’s encounter in Elbasan, about 50 kilometres (31 miles) south of Tirana, has raised fears of renewed strains.
The slightest incident during the match could dash Albania’s dream of qualifying for the European Championships for the first time in their history.
The players have appealed to the public for restraint, with the message: “No to racism, respect the anthems, do not provoke incidents”.
Police in Tirana said on Wednesday that they had arrested Ismail Morina, the man who claimed responsibility for flying the drone over last year’s match, for illegal possession of a Zastava pistol and six bullets.
Another gun and 30 tickets for Thursday’s match were also found overnight in his car, despite him being banned from the stadium. Three other people travelling in the vehicle were also arrested.
Morina, 33, had made headlines over the drone stunt, for which he was hailed by some as a “national hero”.
Authorities in Belgrade said the drone flight was a “premeditated political provocation”, but Albania argued the trouble started before then, when Serbian fans chanted “Death to Albanians” and “Kill Albanians”.
Heated exchanges between the countries meant a visit by Prime Minister Edi Rama — the first by an Albanian government leader to Serbia for 68 years — had to be postponed for three weeks.
The landmark visit finally went ahead in November and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic paid a return visit to Tirana in May.
Both men have pledged to turn the page in order to preserve stability in the Balkans.
Albania is nevertheless taking no chances at tonight’s match, deploying 1,500 police officers to ensure it goes off smoothly.
The tickets are personalised and the police will carry out checks to prevent trouble-makers from slipping into the venue, according to the Albanian Football Association.
All tickets carry a message calling for “fair play and respect of the opponents, the rules and the result of the match”.
The match, like the one in Belgrade, will be played without the presence of away supporters, except for 70 Serbian students who are in Albania for a European project.
Serbia, who have no chance of qualifying, come to Elbasan seeking revenge after the Court of Arbitration for Sport in July awarded a 3-0 win to Albania for the aborted game, deeming the Serbian FA responsible for the match not being played in full.
“We all want to spoil their plans and beat them so that they do not qualify,” Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic said recently.
Albania, currently third in Group I with 11 points, also have to play Armenia on October 11 in Yerevan.
Albania are a point behind Denmark in the second and final automatic qualifying position but the latter only have one game remaining away to group leaders Portugal, who only need one more point from two games to book their place in France.