The head of European soccer's governing body has strongly condemned the violence that erupted during Tuesday night's Albania-Serbia qualifying match for the 2016 European Championship.
UEFA president Michel Platini said, "Football is supposed to bring people together and our game should not be mixed with politics of any kind." In his statement Wednesday, he added that ”the scenes in Belgrade last night were inexcusable" and will result in charges for both Serbia and Albania.
The brawl, considered a major political and international scandal, started after a drone dangling a banner with a “Greater Albania” map with the text “autochthonous" — meaning "the inhabitants of a place, indigenous rather than descended from migrants or colonists" — along with portraits of two Albanian national figures, flew low over Belgrade's Partizan Stadium.
The banner was ripped down by Serbian player Stefan Mitrovic, bringing the already tense atmosphere to a fight as a number of Serbian spectators ran onto the field and attempted to assault Albanian players. The scene precipitated such chaos that it forced English referee Martin Atkinson to abandon the scoreless match after 41 minutes.
As Atkinson ordered the teams off the pitch, Serbian fans threw smoke bombs and other objects from the stands.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter added in a Twitter message that “Football should never be used for political messages. I strongly condemn what happened in Belgrade.”
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said the drone incident was a pre-planned "political provocation" that sparked violence on and off the pitch. Dadic blamed Olsi Rama, the brother of the Albanian Prime Minister, for orchestrating the stunt. Olsi Rama denied the claims.
The incident threatens to overshadow next Wednesday's Serbia visit by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, the first of its kind in 68 years. The visit was arranged after the two countries normalized their relations by an European Union-brokered agreement in April 2013.
Security had been tight for the match in Belgrade with tensions running high over Kosovo, the former ethnic Albanian-dominated Serbian province, which declared independence in 2008. Some Albanian fans say they had been warned against attending the match.
Kosovo's independence is recognized by 110 countries including the United States, Britain, Germany and France, but not Serbia.