Accessibility links

Albanian Team Welcomed Home As Heroes After Belgrade Brawl

  • RFE/RL

Albania's national soccer team has returned home to a hero's welcome after a Euro 2016 qualifying match in Belgrade was abandoned because players brawled over a flag stunt.

Thousands of cheering fans greeting the Albanian players as they returned to Tirana on October 15.

Meanwhile, Serbian officials on October 15 accused Albania of a deliberate political provocation after a drone flew an Albanian nationalist banner over the stadium in Belgrade during the match between the two Balkan rivals.

Serbian authorities say they are launching an investigation into who was responsible for operating the remote-controlled mini-drone.

UEFA, the European soccer body, says it will open disciplinary cases against Serbia and Albania over the violence that broke out on the pitch between the two teams.

Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, world soccer's governing body, tweeted: "Football should never be used for political messages. I strongly condemn what happened in Belgrade" on October 14.

The Group I game was interrupted when a "Greater Albania" banner was flown over the pitch by the drone near the end of the first half.

The teams fought, and Serbian fans stormed the field, after the drone flew low enough for a Serbian player to jump up and grab the banner -- which featured the double-headed black eagle of Albania's national flag emblazoned on a red map of Albania that had been enlarged with territory of its neighbors.

The rival Balkan nations have had turbulent relations, mainly over the ethnic Albanian-majority former Serbian province of Kosovo that unilaterally declared its independence from Belgrade in 2008.

Riot police moved onto the soccer pitch when about a dozen Serbian fans jumped from the stands to join the brawl.

Albanian fans had been banned from attending the match.

After a half-hour delay, English referee Martin Atkinson abandoned the game, which stood at 0-0.

Serbian state television (RTS) reported that Olsi Rama, the brother of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, was arrested in the VIP box for allegedly instigating the flag stunt.

However, that report was not independently confirmed.

Edi Rama is scheduled to visit Belgrade next week for the first official visit there by an Albanian prime minister in 68 years.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP