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Serbia Defeats Albania In Soccer Match Mostly Free Of Tensions

Albanian and Serbian students cheer together before the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying soccer match between Albania and Serbia at Elbasan Arena in Elbasan on October 8.
Albanian and Serbian students cheer together before the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying soccer match between Albania and Serbia at Elbasan Arena in Elbasan on October 8.

Serbia notched a victory in a closely watched soccer match with Albania on October 8 that was unmarred by the nationalist tensions that caused a diplomatic rift between the Balkan countries last year.

Albania imposed heavy security and other measures to guard against incidents during the politically charged match, a Europe 2016 Group I qualifier, which Serbia won 2-0, to prevent a repeat of last year's troubles.

Police carried out a riot drill a few hours before kickoff in front of thousands of bemused fans, firing water cannon bursts as a helicopter buzzed over nearby apartment buildings.

In the end, the only sign of the intense rivalry was loud booing by Albanian fans when the Serbian national anthem was played at the game.

The fans heeded the authorities' calls for good sportsmanship afterward, applauding when rival players were photographed together before the game carrying signs saying "No To Racism."

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama watched the match alone in the stands after Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, in a bid to help defuse tensions, canceled plans to attend.

The Albanian leader complimented the mostly Albanian fans in the stadium for their good behavior despite the unexpected loss, which prevents Albania from reaching their first major soccer tournament.

"A draw would have been fair, but that's football," he said on his Facebook page after the hard-fought game. "The best people at the stadium today were the amazing red-and-black public fans."

Vucic -- whose decision not to attend on October 8 came after the Serbian team's bus was hit by stones in Albania -- said he would skip the match in the central Albanian town of Elbasan "in order to leave the main role to athletes."

Lorik Cana (left) of Albania in action against Nemanja Gudelj of Serbia during the match.
Lorik Cana (left) of Albania in action against Nemanja Gudelj of Serbia during the match.

The Serbian soccer squad's bus was hit by stones within hours of the team arriving in Albania on October 7 for the match, prompting a diplomatic protest from Serbia.

Vucic condemned the "hooligan attack of Albanian fans" and called on Albanian officials to "secure the safety of all Serbians" attending the match.

Before the stoning incident, Albania had stepped up security for the politically charged match, determined to prevent a repeat of the fan and player violence that broke out a year ago at a previous match in Belgrade after a drone carrying a nationalist flag bearing a map of "Greater Albania" flew over the stadium.

The previous match, which was aborted due to the violence, prompted a diplomatic row and highlighted the fragile ties between the two Balkan nations. Diplomatic tensions were quick to break out again over the October 7 stoning incident in the Albanian capital, Tirana.

Serbian federation spokesman Aleksandar Boskovic called it a "small incident," but Serbia's Foreign Ministry said it had prepared a protest note.

Video broadcast on Serbian media showed streets lined with people, and at least two stones striking the bus and cracking a window.

No one was hurt, but Serbia said the incident raised doubts over security for the game.

Serbia's Foreign Ministry said it had summoned Albania's ambassador, Ilir Bocka, but that he had refused to receive Serbia's protest note. There was no immediate word from the Albanian Embassy.

"This game seems to have exceeded a simple football match," Serbian captain Branislav Ivanovic said after the incident.

Bilateral relations have traditionally been frosty, especially since Kosovo, a former province of Serbia populated by mostly ethnic Albanians, declared independence in 2008 -- a move not recognized by Belgrade.

Under pressure from Brussels, Serbia and Albania have worked to normalize relations, with both aspiring to join the European Union.

Albania fielded nearly 2,000 police officers to ensure security at this week's match. The man behind last year's drone incident was arrested on October 7 carrying a pistol and 36 match tickets despite being banned from the game.

Authorities said 33-year-old Ismail Morinaj was arrested with three other men for what they called a "premeditated political provocation." Morinaj made headlines over the drone stunt and is viewed by some in Albania as a national hero.

While moving to prosecute Morinaj, Albania has maintained that the trouble last year started before the drone stunt when Serbian fans started chanting "Death to Albanians" and "Kill Albanians."​

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
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