Franklin Foer once wrote: “Soccer isn’t the same as Bach or Buddhism. But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions.” This was demonstrated during the UEFA European Championship qualifier earlier this week in Belgrade, Serbia between Albania and Serbia.
An already tense game turned into chaos after a drone flew over the stadium while carrying the Greater Albanian flag, a politically-charged Albanian nationalist symbol. A struggle between players spread to fans when a Serbian pitch invader threw a chair, prompting dozens of spectators to assault the Albanian team. The game was called off as the Albanians raced for safety under the protection of the Serbian team. The violence stems from Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence and a history of civil war, fierce nationalism and genocide.
Critics are placing blame on everyone from the Albanian Prime Minister’s brother (who supposedly flew the drone from the crowd), the Football Association of Serbia and Serbian police, who could not stop the violence despite the presence of 4,000 police officers (one for every eight spectators).
Some of the biggest rivalries in soccer are between teams with turbulent histories off the field. Barcelona signified Catalonia’s resistance against Real Madrid-supporter Francisco Franco. Celtic and Rangers symbolized the disunity between Catholics and Protestants in Scotland. Some point to the Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade riot on May 13, 1990 as the beginning of the Croatian War of Independence.
Some have suggested that the match was a mistake, but sports can be used to bring groups with turbulent pasts together. When the Ivory Coast qualified for the 2006 World Cup, soccer star Didier Drogba challenged President Gbagbo to end the civil war and pleaded with combatants to drop their weapons. By April 2007, a peace agreement was signed.
Despite the tragedy of the events in Belgrade, there is hope that progress on the pitch could translate to progress at the negotiation table. As history has shown, it is possible to change the world and maintain peace through sports.