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UEFA must learn its lesson from Serbia-Albania violence

A drone trailing the flag of Greater Albania flew over Partizan Stadium as Serbia and Albania played their Euro 2016 qualifier. The resulting violence was sadly predictable, yet UEFA took no steps to keep the two countries in separate groups.

Alexa Stankovic / AFP

Tuesday night, Albania visited Serbia for their first meeting in Euro 2016 qualifying. By now, you've all seen the photos. First came the miniature drone, flying over Partizan Stadium trailing a flag of Greater Albania. Tempers, already high on both the pitch and in the stands, flared.

On the field, Stefan Mitrovic pulled down the banner, a flag depicting what Albania would look like if it encompassed all areas in which ethnic Albanians live. Then came a scuffle in which the Albanian players attempted to retrieve the flag, and soon both sides were jumping in -- although most were simply attempting to ensure that the fans in the stadium were unable to attack the Albanian players.

The Serbian fans, already infused with nationalist pride, confronted riot police as they attempted to break onto the pitch. One fan threw a stool; others, some draped with the Serbian flag, threw punches -- both at players and at the police. As Albanian players ran into the tunnel, at least one fan followed them in and was eventually dragged out by a steward. And while the players fled for the safety of the tunnel, the fans chanted "ubij, zakolji, da siptar ne postoji," which can be translated as "kill, slaughter, until there's no Albanians left."

Kill the Albanians, until there's not one left. A chant not just from a lone voice, but from many. A chant impossible to file under "banter," but one directed toward a distinct group of people, singled out not for their footballing allegiances, but for the ethnicity they carry.

Why, then, was such a match allowed in the first place? UEFA have no qualms about preventing certain clubs from being drawn together in European tournaments. Citing concerns about security and safety, UEFA chose to prevent Russian and Ukranian clubs from being drawn together in the Champions League. The Israel-Palestine conflict means that no Israeli clubs may host a European match. And for Euro 2016, UEFA altered the group draw so that Gibraltar would be removed from a group including Spain, who dispute the former's sovereignty.

Yet no one stepped in to question the wisdom of allowing Albania and Serbia to play against one another. The reasoning is down to the fact that the two countries have, officially, normal diplomatic relations, with embassies in one another's capitals and the Albanian Prime Minister due to visit Belgrade next week -- the first visit since Enver Hoxha and Josip Broz Tito met in 1947.

A spokesman for UEFA said there was "no clear reason" to keep Albania and Serbia apart in the draw, going on to name the three criteria for separating countries: whether they had normal diplomatic relations, whether there was an ongoing military or armed conflict and whether there had been a request made by either national association to be kept apart.

Perhaps UEFA is so focused on football that it turned a blind eye to history, ignoring, even, the request from both national associations that away fans be denied entry from matches. In fact, examining this request further should show just how volatile the situation was, even before the match kicked off. At first, Serbia permitted Albania fans to be allowed tickets -- 5 percent of Partizan stadium, or 1,500 tickets. But due to the high-risk nature of the match, certain conditions had to be met: the tickets could only be sold in Albania, and those buying had to present passports, so it was known exactly who would attend.

For those paying attention, the message was clear: Serbia could not take the risk that fans from Kosovo, an area composed of roughly 90 percent ethnic Albanians, would be permitted entry into Partizan Stadium.

The Albanian FA said such conditions were impossible to organize, and so visiting fans were prohibited from procuring tickets. However, in a move many believe resulted from diplomatic pressure, those fans were permitted not only to leave the airport -- where Serbia preferred they be kept -- but to continue to the stadium in Belgrade. Some news outlets have asserted at least a few fans gained entry into the stadium.

It was clear, prior to kickoff, that there was potential for trouble, that the violence witnessed at Partizan Stadium was predictable. It was also clear that measures were in place to try and prevent incidents, with policemen dressed in riot gear roaming the city before the match, and thousands in attendance at the stadium. However, the number in attendance, 2,500, did not reach the amount called upon for Serbia-Croatia, in which 4,000 officers showed up for a match without away fans.

The match was played out to its quasi-predictable result (to be fair, the appearance of a drone was unexpected). And although disciplinary proceedings are set to be opened against both Serbia and Albania, UEFA should also examine its own practices. It is unsurprising that neither country wished to step up and say that there might be problems stemming from such a meeting, as both would like to gloss over their faults, presenting an image of control and tranquility, one that permits them to continue projecting a newly-clean face to the world and keeps them on a path to European inclusion.

In cases such as this, it should not be up to national associations to make the call as to whether countries may play against each other. UEFA must put stronger policies in place, particularly as the notion of an "ongoing military or armed conflict" is outdated. To keep fans -- and players -- safe, it is tensions that must be considered, tensions that most often occur in absence of a mutually recognized armed conflict.

The tensions surrounding Kosovo are not unknown. They have existed for centuries, in fact, but for the past 20 years, they have garnered plenty of attention. Only last spring, FIFA granted permission for the Kosovo national team to participate in international friendlies -- but prohibited from playing against teams from the former Yugoslavia.

Albania and Kosovo are not one and the same. But when it comes to ethnic tension, such a distinction matters little. Tensions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs inside Kosovo have long resulted in violence, including the Kosovo War in 1999. And while Kosovo may have announced their independence in 2008, the Serb minority largely does not support the declaration, and Serbia itself does not recognize the state as its own entity.

UEFA can be forgiven for not knowing the intricate history of Kosovo -- after all, even Kosovo: A Short History runs to nearly 500 pages. But they should not be absolved from creating a situation in which violence was almost certain to fester. Walk down almost any street in Belgrade and it's possible to spot graffiti referencing 1389, the year of the Battle of Kosovo. The myths surrounding this battle are one of the many reasons Serbia are unable to let the state go. "Kosovo is Serbia", an integral part, an area that almost seems to define Serbian identity. But for the ethnic Albanians, Kosovo as an independent state is a necessity, a way to prevent further ethnic discrimination, prejudice and even bloodshed.

This is where UEFA failed. Rather than consider a heated situation well known to most citizens in the world, the organization chose to bury its head in the sand. They looked at two countries in isolation. Albania. Serbia. They ignored the politics of ethnicity. And then a flag advocating Greater Albania threw everything into chaos.