Not a single season can seem to go by without an Eastern European nation or club demonstrating antisocial behaviour at football matches. Russian club CSKA Moscow will play three Champions League games behind closed doors, the first of which ended in a 2-2 draw with Manchester City on Tuesday night, following racist behaviour from their fans against AS Roma in Italy last month. AS Galatasaray have also been fined nearly £40,000 for their fans’ behaviour at Emirates Stadium at the beginning of this month. However, no match in recent memory has cast such a dark shadow over Eastern European football than the European qualifier between Albania and Serbia, which was forced to be abandoned. Serbian defender Stefan Mitrović took down an Albanian nationalist flag, carried by drone flown above the Partizan Stadium’s pitch, provoking clashes between Albanian and Serbian players and fans alike, giving English referee Martin Atkinson no choice but to abandon the game. And whilst the FAs of both countries have been charged by UEFA, the question remains as to whether punishment for these acts during football games is severe enough.
It is clear through the examples above and through the latest incident that fines and similar sanctions are not sufficient enough and are not perceived as a deterrent in this part of Europe. Some may offer the argument that the European Championship in 2012 in Poland and Ukraine were incident free despite earlier reports and programmes warning supporters that violence at football matches in these parts was unique. However, trouble in Eastern Europe as a whole is all too frequent, and this violence is detrimental to the development of players coming through at these clubs. Whilst violence such as the Crimean crisis this year is out of the players’ and fans’ hands, to make these young players at Shakhtar Donetsk or Red Star Belgrade better, they must play with better players. However, what attraction to such leagues have? Why would a player move to a lesser league where the potential exists to be racially abused? Only a few teams possess the financial power, such as Zenit St Petersburg, shown by their summer acquisition of Ezequiel Garay, to tempt players from leaving some of the biggest clubs in Europe.
There was no surprise in the manner in which neither FA of Serbia nor Albania wanted to openly admit their team’s part in the incident. The Albanian national association stated that their players had been “emotionally shaken and psychologically distraught” by the violence, whilst condemning the Serbian players of “racist violence”, and their opposite number of “negative propaganda”. This came after their counterparts released a statement of how they believed the Albanian FA’s “sole aim was to force the game to be abandoned”, whilst condemning the Albanian team set-up of carrying out a “synchronised plan to stop the match”. Although it is difficult to determine the right and the wrong of the matter, more precisely, should a flag carried by a drone have been allowed anywhere near the stadium, it is much easier to suggest that the two national teams have shown a severe lack of professionalism. I have never seen the word “beautiful” used so much for such an obscure situation that the statement written by the Albanian FA, however the fact that they blame the “complete failure” of the Serbian FA to organise “a safe international sporting event” but not at all condemn the existence and the controller of the drone is just laughable. Similarly, despite the Serbian FA citing the whole incident as a plan by the Albanian set-up, why did the Serbian players, and in particular Stefan Mitrović feel the need to get involved and provoke clashes?
Whilst Serbia’s and Albania’s respective football associations and media were exchanging blows, it was only Bekim Balaj of Albania who can come out of the whole incident with any form of respectability, by saying “With the players we have no problem. Even the Serbian guys, they tried to stop the situation”. Of course with this statement the Albanian FA lose a certain amount of credibility after their accusation regarding the Serbian players. One question remains however. If there were no problems with the Serbians, why were there clashes that lasted for half an hour? A question unfortunately which adds to the mystery of football in Eastern Europe. With the players’ reaction being so severe, it’s no wonder that the supporters find it acceptable to behave in such a manner. The Crimean crisis took many lives, but whilst that has halted, the number of people who die as a result of football violence is on the increase, an increasingly worrying and underlying problem that the whole of Europe is struggling to contend with.