Serbia vs. Albania Euro 2016 qualifier abandoned over drone flag fight
BELGRADE, Serbia -- Serbia's match with Albania on Tuesday was abandoned amid surreal and violent scenes at Partizan Stadium.
The Euro 2016 qualifying fixture, Albania's first visit to Belgrade since 1967, was halted minutes before halftime with the score goalless after fighting broke out between players, staff and supporters, with the players eventually running down the tunnel as play was halted.
After a 50-minute delay, during which it was originally announced that the match would continue, it became clear that the game would not be restarted.
The catalyst was bizarre: during a stoppage in play to clear a flare from the pitch, a drone hovered into view above the arena, dangling beneath it a banner with the Albanian flag.
With the crowd provoked into a frenzy, Serbia defender Stefan Mitrovic jumped to catch it as it landed and was immediately set upon by Albanian players. The flag ended up in the hands of striker Bekim Balaj.
Substitutes and officials subsequently entered the pitch, and scenes descended into running fights as a number of supporters gained entry to the pitch. With matters seeming to be calming, more intruders entered the arena and had to be restrained by Serbian players, while fighting continued with fists and objects being used as weapons.
Eventually, Albania's players hurriedly exited the pitch via the players' tunnel, pelted by objects and appearing to be set upon by more invaders from the crowd. Serbia's players followed and, with riot police flanking the pitch columns several deep, attempts were made to restore order.
These resulted in an announcement that play would continue, but -- after Serbian substitutes and coach Dick Advocaat temporarily returned -- news filtered through that the match officials had decided to abandon the contest.
"We wanted to continue the match, but Albanian players said they were not psychologically ready," Serbia captain Branislav Ivanovic said.
Albania's Italian coach, Gianni De Biasi, said four players were injured.
"We also complained [to UEFA delegate Harry M. Been] that security staff in the stadium attacked us physically, as well as fans and some players,'' he told Albania's Supersport private TV channel.
Been issued a short statement to reporters after the match, saying a full report would be made before the governing body decides how the incident would affect the points in qualifying Group I.
The two countries, separated by the disputed territory of Kosovo, share a tense history and Albania's federation did not make tickets available for travelling fans after a recommendation from UEFA. Albanian fans attempting to enter the grounds faced the possibility of the arrest if they carried Albanian symbols.
Fearing trouble, hundreds of riot police were deployed inside and outside the Partizan stadium. Dozens of Albanian fans, mostly from Kosovo and Montenegro, apparently managed to get inside.
Before the match, the Albanian anthem was loudly jeered by Serbian fans and derogatory chanting was heard throughout the first half.
The drone, clearly visible in the lights of the stadium, made a series of passes above the field. The banner displayed an Albanian flag and a map of so-called "Greater Albania," an area that comprises territory within today's Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and northern Greece.
The banner also portrayed two Albanian nationalist leaders -- Ismail Qemali, who declared Albania's independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 and Isa Boletini, an Albanian fighter against the Turks.
On his Twitter page, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama congratulated Albanian players for their courage before the match was abandoned and added that he was "sorry for the neighbors who left a bad worldwide image with the ugly show."
Thousands of Albanian fans who followed the match on a big screen in Tirana headed for the airport in the Albanian capital to welcome the players on their arrival from Belgrade.
After the match, Albanian Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri sent a letter to his Serbian counterpart expressing concerns for the security of the Albania players, team staff and journalists, and a few fans. The minister asked for "urgent steps to guarantee the security of all Albanian citizens present in the stadium."
Both Serbian and Albanian fans have a long history of violence and racial abuse. In October 2010, the Italy-Serbia Euro qualifier was disrupted in Genoa by violent Serbia fans. UEFA awarded Italy a 3-0 win.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.