What a surprise drone and a soccer brawl reveal about the Balkans

Hooligans are hooligans are hooligans.
Hooligans are hooligans are hooligans.
Image: AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The European Championship qualifier in Belgrade between Albania and Serbia was cut short earlier this month. Initial scuffles between players ended with a field invasion by angry Serb fans and hard objects flying across the stands. A drone flew above the stadium, carrying a flag with “Greater Albania” emblazoned on it.

The timing could not have been more awkward: The Albanian prime minister Edi Rama was scheduled to visit Belgrade the following week in the first official trip since Albanian Communist party chief Enver Hoxha paid a visit to Josip Broz Tito back in 1946. In light of the incident, the visit has been postponed to Nov. 10. Diplomatic relations between the two countries remain tense.

The international press was greatly captivated by the drone, but the story actually began with disagreements between the soccer federations about visiting fans. In line with UEFA recommendations, Albanian supporters couldn’t be present in Belgrade and Albanian symbols were prohibited in the stadium. Serbian authorities threatened to arrest anyone revealing such symbols, but chants to “kill, kill the Albanians”—among some old-fashioned Balkan folk, the very term Albanian serves as an insult—were somehow allowed.

Psychological warfare, in other words, was being waged well before the provocative drone made an appearance. Some Serbian players were baffled by the mayhem unleashed on the field. A couple of them reportedly shielded their Albanian counterparts with their own bodies and later checked on them in the dressing rooms.

Commentators immediately recognized that the drone and the brawl revealed some deeper darker history.

The drone, carrying an Albanian flag, flies over the stadium in Belgrade.
The drone, carrying an Albanian flag, flies over the stadium in Belgrade.
Image: AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

It’s all about Kosovo,” sports journalists rushed to explain. Hatred between Albanians and Serbs go back to ancient times, others chimed in. Never mind that historians have long rejected the stubborn myth that modern Balkan conflicts can be explained by supposedly ancient hatreds. Apparently, we have not been very convincing.

Far from exhibiting atavistic animosity, what took place in Belgrade—its banality, its brutality—was distinctly Western European. It’s called hooliganism. Forty years ago, it used to be known as “the English disease.”

There is, in the former Yugoslavia, a nasty history of soccer hooliganism and organized violence in the name of ethnic warfare. Popular historians, for example, have pointed to the 1990 game between Zagreb’s Dinamo team and Belgrade’s Red Star—a match that morphed into riots. Soccer fans and irregular paramilitary groups became a key feature of the early fighting in Yugoslavia. Željko Ražnatović, the war criminal known as Arkan who led his “Tigers” and gleefully butchered his way through the crumbling country, was an early protagonist.

The Eastern European, and especially Balkan, variety of soccer violence can seem, well, different. That is why when thugs set things on fire in Genoa, the perpetrators are denounced as “animals” (Italian). But when the same individuals misbehave in the Balkans, things are historically “complex.” The brawl in Belgrade gave way to a media war outside of the stadium. As Serb security officials frantically searched for the drone’s remote in the Albanian guests’ dressing rooms, some creative local spin doctor spread the news that the offending flying object had been operated by the Albanian prime minister’s brother. Western outlets eagerly picked up the rumor.

This obsession with how ethnicity and identity explains conflict in the Balkans has helped academics get jobs, NGOs get money, and has kept European Union experts busy.

The narrative tells us that people in the Balkans have never gotten along. Except that they can, and they have. Cast in ethnic terms, conflicts have often actually been about illiberal and morally bankrupt elites mobilizing nationalism to silence their opponents. Routine reports of violence tend to reinforce the idea that Balkan countries are not yet where they need to be—a convenient formula for an EU in no mood for enlargement. But maybe these countries have already been there for quite some time.

UEFA fines and EU calls for cooperation and understanding are out of place. They do not provide an answer to the desperation that pervades the lives of ordinary Serb and Albanian youths (some statistics put youth unemployment in the Balkans at over 50%). For if there is one thing that unites Albanians and Serbs, in addition to their countries’ main economic output (corruption), is bitter disappointment with leaders who continue to sell them fanciful dreams of historical pride.