“Politicians should take care of politics but sport needs to be a place of brotherhood which brings people together.” So said Michel Platini earlier this year on one of the Uefa president’s regular diversions down the blind alley marked “sport and politics should not mix”.
Uefa’s independent disciplinary committee, having sifted through evidence from both Serbia and Albania, decided on the plague-on-all-their-houses approach on Friday. Serbia were awarded a 3-0 walkover but had three points deducted, both countries were fined €100,000 each and Serbia were ordered to play their next two home qualifiers, against Denmark on 14 November and Armenia on 4 September next year, behind closed doors.
In the absence of any definitive evidence on who actually flew the drone, it is a verdict that looks tough on the Albanians.
It is a given that in any quasi-judicial process each side will aggressively present their case in the best light. But the Ministry of Truth tone of the Serbian submission, in which the Albanian FA was accused of orchestrating the drone incident as part of a premeditated “terrorist act”, verged on the ridiculous.
All who were there have commented on the supercharged atmosphere among a crowd whipped into a frenzy by the nationalism stirred up by their first clash with Albania in Belgrade since 1967. Held against the backdrop of longstanding tensions over Kosovo, the former Serbian province declared independence in 2008 and is populated mainly by ethnic Albanians, the match was always going to be a flashpoint. That tension erupted into war in 1998 and was halted only by a Nato bombing campaign a year later, but not before 10,000 people had lost their lives.
Despite the absence of away fans the atmosphere was not helped by a security operation that, according to eyewitnesses, was woefully inadequate. Stones, lighters, coins, flares, chunks of crumbling terrace and other objects – the Albanian FA’s submission claims a wheelbarrow was spotted on the terraces – found their way on to the pitch having been hurled in the direction of Albanian players.
Banners glorifying war criminals were openly displayed and songs raining down from the terraces included “Kill, kill, kill the Albanians” and “Burn them, burn them alive until there are none left”. The sight of the notorious hooligan Ivan Bogdanov in the crowd seemed symbolically significant of a lack of desire or ability among the Serbian authorities to police the game and a reminder of the close links between Belgrade’s ultras and Arkan’s murderous rampage across the region in the late 90s properly.
When all hell broke loose in the wake of the drone incident – with stewards, fans and (allegedly) the police attacking Albanian players as they ran from the pitch, shielded by their Serbian counterparts – the powder keg had required only a spark.
There can be little doubt that the surreal drone and its offensive cargo provided that spark. But for all we (and Uefa) might suspect it was an Albanian flying it, without proof it is surely difficult to censure them for it. Disentangling the toxic web of claim and counter claim in cases such as this is never going to be easy but not for the first time Uefa seems to have fallen between several stools.
The Albanian FA claims that up to six players were so badly injured that they were unable to carry on. The Serbians say they offered to replay the game later in the week behind closed doors. The Albanians claim no such offer was made and that in any case their players were due back with their clubs.
There is little doubt that both sides were culpable but, while Serbia will face the loss of revenue from two home matches behind closed doors, Albania suffered the greater sporting penalty.
The charge sheet against Serbia is getting absurdly long. Four years ago a Euro 2012 qualifier with Italy was suspended amid scenes of mayhem. There have been regular incidents involving Serbian clubs in European competition and in December 2012 England’s under-21 match ended in chaos with players being attacked on the pitch amid accusations of racism.
Two games behind closed doors are unlikely to remedy the problem, particularly while Serbians remain aggressively in denial. Both sides will appeal.
Last week was designated a Uefa “no to racism action week”, the latest reminder that TV adverts, T-shirts and warm words are all very well. But until they are backed by coherent decisions from Uefa’s disciplinary body they will not achieve much.
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