Why Albania, Croatia and Serbia will always be divided by football

Berlin is united by football. Cologne is united by football. Dortmund is… you get the idea.

“United by football” has been Germany’s tagline for Euro 2024 since the country announced its bid to stage the tournament in 2017. And, for the vast majority of fans in Germany, it works.

But there are some supporters here for whom that tagline is impossible. At best, it is vacuous marketing speak. At worst, it is an insult, a “look at what you could have won” joke played on one troubled corner of Europe by the rest of the continent.

Of course, we should all be united by something as inconsequential but life-affirming as football — or art or music or whatever expression of our shared humanity floats your boat — but humans have a habit of getting in the way of themselves. And humans in the Balkans, the region in south-east Europe once dubbed the continent’s “powder keg”, have been banging into each other for centuries.

In the context of many of those collisions, what is happening at Euro 2024 is very, very insignificant. When you have lived through the violent breakup of a country, which was only ever a 20th-century attempt to plaster over 1,000 years of conflict, who really cares if football fans sing nasty songs at each other?

That country was, of course, Yugoslavia, the losing finalists at the first and third editions of this tournament in 1960 and 1968, respectively, semi-finalists in 1976 and one of the pre-tournament favourites going into Euro 1992.

Unfortunately, Yugoslavia never made it to Sweden, because the disintegrating country was under United Nations sanctions by then, as what would become a decade of separate but related conflicts known as the Yugoslav Wars had erupted in Bosnia and Croatia.

The first of those conflicts had already finished in Slovenia, which explains why some meetings of former fellow Yugoslavs have passed off much more peacefully than others at Euro 2024. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

To return to the “who cares?” question, the answer would appear to be UEFA, as European football’s governing body has been dishing out fines to its Balkan members like the most annoying person on any stag do.

As we approach the end of the group stage, European football’s governing body has fined four national associations for the misbehaviour of their fans: Albania, Croatia, Scotland and Serbia.

Scotland, the odd ones out geographically, were fined £4,750 ($6,000) for throwing plastic cups onto the pitch during their 5-1 defeat by Germany in the tournament’s opening game. A rap on the knuckles for a relatively minor offence and one that several other federations will be sweating on in the coming days.

The Serbian football association has been fined for the same offence but also for its fans “displaying provocative messages not fit for sports events”, in this case a banner that referred to Serbia’s ancient claim on Kosovo, the disputed republic to its south that is now 92 per cent Albanian. It is a bitter row that goes back at least 700 years and looks set to continue for 700 more.

Croatia’s federation has been fined nearly £24,000 because its fans lit and threw flares and smoke bombs during the game against Albania.

The Albanian federation has been fined almost £72,000 for its fans throwing objects, lighting fireworks, displaying provocative messages and invading the pitch, twice.

It has not just been Albania’s fans getting in trouble. A reporter from Kosovo (yes, we know, not officially Albania but that is the whole point of what is going on here) has been sent home for goading Serbian fans with the double-eagle hand gesture which has become the Albanian red rag to Serbia’s bull, and Albania forward Mirlind Daku has been suspended for two games for grabbing a microphone after the draw with Croatia to shout “f*** Macedonia, f*** Serbia”.

Daku was suspended for two games after his shouting (Sergei Mikhailichenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It is quite a list and there is probably more to come for them and their neighbours, as UEFA is still investigating allegations of racist chanting by Serbian fans during their first game against England and “potential racist and/or discriminatory conducts” by both sets of supporters during that Albania-Croatia match.

In case you missed that one, it is alleged that both sets of fans joined in with a chant of “kill, kill, kill a Serb” in the 60th minute of the match.

Confused? It’s OK (well, it’s not, it’s actually very sad but the same can be said about a dozen other intractable conflicts around the world), it is confusing for those of us who have not grown up steeped in these stories of betrayals, outrages and sacrifices.

No article by a sports journalist can possibly do justice to the history of the Balkans — entire libraries are dedicated to the topic — so I am not going to try. That is partly because of time/space constraints, partly cowardice and partly because it is not really relevant to what is happening at this tournament.

“There are several reasons for what we’re seeing,” says Dario Brentin, a social scientist at the University of Graz’s Centre for Southeast European Studies.

“This is the first big tournament in a country with a strong tradition of fan culture for a long time. You cannot compare Euro 2024 with the World Cups in 2018 or 2022, or the last Euros, which were affected by the pandemic. So this is a hugely attractive tournament for fans.

“The second is that all of these countries have big diaspora populations in Germany and across Europe. We know that diaspora communities tend to be very expressive in their national affiliations. That is not exclusive to football but football is a clear example of the tendency.

“And then you have the presence at the tournament of each nations’ most organised group of fans. These can number from 200 to 500. Sometimes they are affiliated with a specific club, like Dinamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys. These smaller groups can provide an impetus to the larger group, which then gets carried along. Alcohol is a factor but it is also just basic group psychology.



Derby Days, Croatia: The Eternal Derby

“Frankly, I don’t know why people are surprised by any of this. What we are witnessing in Germany is pretty banal in Serbia, Croatia and Albania. It is mundane. It is a simple part of fan culture there and has been deeply ingrained for 30 years.

“These are old songs. It is tragic, of course, but it’s the reality of diaspora communities and these extremist groups of football fans. When these worlds collide, well, you can see what happens.”


Serbia fans at the Euros (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

James Montague, the author of 1312: Among the Ultras, the definitive book on global football’s most extreme groups of fans, mainly agrees with Brentin.

“All of these nationalist disputes have roots that go back hundreds of years — the Battle of Kosovo, the Ottoman Empire and all that — but, in terms of what is important today, they really start in the Yugoslav Wars,” says Montague.

“For example, Daku was suspended for shouting about Macedonia. Well, that’s because there are still problems in North Macedonia between the majority Slavic population and the Albanian minority. It was the last of the Yugoslav Wars and it wasn’t that long ago.

“So, it is not unusual at all, in that region, to see those conflicts played out on football terraces by the various groups of ultras.

“What’s become more prevalent in recent years is the display of these irredentist flags of Greater Albania, Greater Serbia and so on. They had always existed to a certain point but they have become more important.

“In 2014, there was the infamous drone incident in the Serbia-Albania game, when the Greater Albania flag was flown. That started an arms race of sorts between the fans’ groups and legitimised almost anything in their eyes.”

The incident Montague referred to occurred during a qualifying match for Euro 2016 in Belgrade. No away fans were allowed at the match but that did not stop a group of Albanians from making their presence felt by using a drone to fly the flag of Greater Albania over the stadium. Like all the other “Greaters”, Greater Albania is a dream, a country comprised of all the places ethnic Albanians live.


The drone over the pitch sparked ugly scenes on and off the pitch in 2014 (GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP via Getty Images)

A Serbian player eventually grabbed the flag, prompting an angry response from the Albanian players, which, like a chain reaction, provoked a near riot among the Serbian fans. The Albanian team was chased off the pitch and refused to come back out again.

The match was abandoned with the score still 0-0. UEFA initially gave Serbia a 3-0 walkover win but docked them three points for the breakdown in order. After appeals by both sides, the matter went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which decided the Serbians were more at fault for the game’s abandonment and gave Albania the walkover.

United by football, you say? Good luck.

Where Montague slightly disagrees with Brentin is on the role the region’s most infamous club ultras are playing in Germany.

“The stuff you see every week in Croatia and Serbia is not the same thing that is happening here,” he says.

“Local ultra groups often despise and avoid the national teams. What they’re doing is about their team, it’s not about the national team. Certainly with the Serbian fans. They are not Partisan or Red Star fans who have buried the hatchet, anything but.

“All the main guys have stayed away from Germany because they have no interest in the national team. It’s actually diaspora groups and other people not connected to club ultra groups who get involved in these incidents.

“There is a national ultra group for Hungary called the Carpathian Brigade and lots has been written about them, as they are connected to the Hungarian government and its illiberal regime. Albania has one called the Red and Black, and a more extreme one called the Illyrian Brigade, but they tend to be an expression of wider nationalist feelings rather than the more narrow focus of the club ultras.”



Derby Days, Belgrade: The Eternal Derby

Where they both agree is on the unlikelihood of hearing anyone from one of the Balkan federations, or even a player, coming out publicly to condemn their fans’ antics.

“You will not see any players or federation officials speak out against these chants,” says Brentin.

“At best, they are guilty of cowardly conformism. At worst, it is calculated and reflects their ideological positions. In short, they agree with the fans.”

And who can blame them when the coverage back home follows an ancient script?

“The game between Albania and Croatia had a quite unique political context in a sense that many people in both countries ‘share’ the hatred towards Serbs,” explains Dr Marko Milosavljevic, professor of journalism at Slovenia’s University of Ljubljana.

“So, the chant should not come as a complete surprise. After all, football matches, in particular, but also some other sports, have for decades been part of the battleground.

“For example, incidents between hooligans were a forerunner of the wars in the 1990s, as games between Croatian and Serbian teams would often be violent, sometimes even with the players joining in.”

The most infamous example of that occurred in May 1990, when Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb met Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade in a Yugoslav First League match in the Croatian capital. The game took place only weeks after a majority of Croatians had voted for independence, raising the temperature for the grudge match by several degrees.

Long story short, a riot erupted, with Dinamo captain Zvonimir Boban, who later starred for Croatia and Milan, supplying the iconic image, a flying kick aimed at a policeman who was roughing up a Dinamo fan.

But the connections between football and the war between Croats and Serbs that broke out in early 1991 go far beyond Boban. Among the Red Star fans at that game was Zeljko Raznatovic, who would soon become infamous as “Arkan”, the leader of the Serb Volunteer Guard, or Arkan’s Tigers, a paramilitary group guilty of some of the Yugoslav Wars’ worst outrages.

“The media in Croatia and Serbia have frequently played a supportive role in these outbursts of nationalistic tensions but also hate speech, racism and other inappropriate behaviour,” says Milosavljevic.

“The government-controlled media in (President Aleksandar) Vucic’s Serbia has always presented any issues as ‘us against them’ and as a form of worldwide conspiracy against Serbia. The country and Vucic are always the victims.


The Serbian FA were furious with the chanting of some Croatia and Albania fans (RONNY HARTMANN/AFP via Getty Images)

“But the example of the Albania-Croatia match was actually one of the few cases where Serbia really was an innocent victim. In addition to chanting ‘kill, kill, kill a Serb’, the Croatian fans were also chanting ‘Srbe na vrbe’, or ‘Hang the Serbs from the willow”, which is a highly-loaded phrase from the Second World War, when Croatia’s fascist Ustashe regime aligned itself with the Nazis and killed thousands of Serbs in concentration camps.

“The chant has a clear and hateful intention and does not belong anywhere, least of all at a sports event.”

And that would appear to be why last week’s incident blew up. It is one thing for a few hundred fans to go through their usual repertoires at club games few outsiders are paying much attention to, but it is another when fans of two nations are doing it about a third nation at what is meant to be celebration of European unity.

The Serbian FA felt it was beyond the pale.

Speaking to Serbian state broadcaster RTS after the match, the general secretary of Serbia’s FA Jovan Surbatovic said: “What happened is scandalous and we will ask UEFA for sanctions, even if it means not continuing the competition.”

The association then wrote to UEFA the following day, demanding it take action against the “shameful joint chanting by fans of both teams, which was directed against the Serbian nation as a whole”.

Later that day, UEFA confirmed that it had opened an investigation into the matter. That was five days ago.

For the record, the Croatian FA has told The Athletic that it does not believe any of its fans were involved, and pointed out that the chants were not mentioned in the UEFA match observer’s report. The Albanian FA has not responded to a request for comment.

“Nothing will happen in the way of pulling out of the tournament but the (Serbian FA) wants stricter punishments for chants that are definitely serious,” Nemanja Stanojcic, a sports journalist for Serbian outlet Mondo explains.

“I’m expecting a big financial punishment, not a points deduction or anything like that.”

Milosavljevic agrees and notes that not every match involving Balkan neighbours has descended into nationalistic name-calling. The atmosphere before the game between Serbia and Slovenia was friendly. Slovenia’s “war of independence”, however, lasted only 10 days and there was not much shooting.

Can Serbia’s relationship with Albania or Croatia ever reach that happier place?

“Serbia’s relationship with Albania and Croatia is awful and it’s very hard to repair,” says Stanojcic emphatically.

“With Albania, it’s all related to Kosovo and the politics behind it. There are a lot of things going on… it’s complicated. You probably read about the Albanian journalist who lost his credentials…”

Yep, we read about it. And we agree, it’s complicated. Too complicated for a tagline to solve.

(Top photo: Albania fans at their Euros match against Spain. Foto Olimpik/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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