Serbia-Albania fiasco: Is UEFA culpable?

The abandonment of the 2016 European Championship qualifier between Serbia and Albania is another reminder of why politics and football should not mix. A drone carrying a pro-Albanian flag was all it took to disrupt the match, minutes before half time. Seeing a Serbian player grab the flag was enough fuel to the fire that was already blazing in the patriotic hearts of some of the Albanian players. And then, as many know by now, all hell broke loose.

How many times have we seen or heard of scenes like this interrupting international matches?

Back in the year 2000, during a World Cup qualifier between Zimbabwe and South Africa, police reacted to fans taunting and singing opposition chants, resulting in a stampede that killed 13 people. A year later, a friendly between France and Algeria was disrupted by a pitch invader, brandishing a flag. His actions prompted several more patriots to follow suit, forcing French players to leave the pitch. The match was the first meeting between both countries since Algeria gained independence from France.

The question begs to be asked, if a conscious decision could be made to make sure neither Gibraltar and Spain nor Armenia and Azerbaijan meet in the qualifying stage of the 2016 competition, because of tense political situations, then why were Serbia and Albania excluded in that list? The problem between the two nations did not erupt recently. Its been on-going since 1989, despite a thaw in relations last year.

Also, how is stopping the visiting fans from attending the match in Belgrade a preventive measure to what eventually happened? Why not just have the match behind closed doors instead? Knowing the history of Serbian fans, that could have quelled tensions. The players could focus solely on their jobs, which is to play a football match. Can you blame the Albanian players for feeling like lambs to the slaughter, having to play in a 32-thousand capacity stadium, even if it was 50% full? How can you fault the players for refusing to return to the pitch thereafter?

Of course, nobody could have predicted the entrance of a drone to the party, how could they? It should have been anticipated. But it wasn’t. And what did happen, happened. All FIFA and UEFA can do, in their typically passive fashion is to denounce what happened and charge both football associations. What impact does that really have on the guilty parties?

Is punishing the FA really going to get at the masked individuals who invaded the pitch? Or those who pelted the players with objects from the stands as they ran for cover? Obviously it’s tougher to punish the exact perpetrators but perhaps it’s time to think of harsher penalties for troublemakers such as these, for bringing the game into disrepute? The players initially involved should also be put under scrutiny. There was no justification to react how they did, both Serbians and Albanians. And they should be reprimanded because it initiated, encouraged even, what the fans thought they could get away with.

In the mean time, maybe the decision makers should be more pro-active when it comes to countries with conflicts. If they can pre-empt the situation between Gibraltar and Spain, I don’t see why they can’t practice the same rule all around. It’s one thing to say football and politics should not mix. But if you’re going to make exceptions to the rule, then make sure it blankets all members.

Football is after all a game of high passion. Footballers are human beings with emotion. And so are the fans.

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