How a night in Athens saw Balkan football’s ugly side return

How a night in Athens saw Balkan football’s ugly side return

Another round of international fixtures yielded another unsavoury incident in the stands in the Balkans recently as the Group H fixture between second-placed Greece and third-placed Bosnia and Herzegovina was marred by crowd trouble at the Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus.

Having previously clashed with Croatian fans in the same venue just over five years ago, which included a Molotov cocktail being hurled at followers of the Vatreni, a small section of Greek ‘supporters’ decided to unleash similar havoc to their Bosnian guests.

Trouble occurred before the game when three Bosnian fans were attacked in Athens close to the stadium by Greek hooligans. When the game did kick off, tensions ran high both on and off the field as Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson brandished 12 yellow cards while sending off Greek defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Edin Džeko in an ill-tempered 1-1 draw.

A strong contingent of visiting ‘supporters’ halted proceedings after Miralem Pjanić’s free-kick rebounded off goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis in the 32nd minute before hurling flares at their hosts, with their Greek counterparts returning fire quite literally by projecting flares into the away end.

The heated atmosphere continued in the second half, and when Džeko was shown his second yellow for pulling down the shorts of Borussia Dortmund defender Sokratis, a bottle was thrown at the Roma striker, hitting him on the ear and causing some bleeding.

The home end erupted in jubilation in the fifth minute of injury time when Giorgos Tzavellas equalised to maintain the status quo in the Group H standings on a night when table-topping Belgium thrashed a hapless Estonia 8-1 thanks to doubles from Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens. 

Then, most shocking of all, photos emerged post-match of a banner in the Greece end which read “Nož, žica, Srebrenica” (The Knife, The Barbed Wire, Srebrenica) – a hate-slogan glorifying the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which thousands of Muslim men were slaughtered and buried in mass graves by Bosnian Serb forces led by Ratko Mladić, who is currently on trial in The Hague.

FIFA quickly announced it had launched an investigation into the crowd disturbances and the hateful banner, with the incident enraging many in Bosnia and its diaspora throughout the globe. Several Bosnian media outlets highlighted the perpetrators behind the banner may have been Serbian, while the Belgrade-based newspaper Kurir noted the Greek hooligans who set upon the three Bosnian spectators pre-game were heard shouting “Kosovo is Serbia”.

The use of the Srebrenica slur by opposition supporters at Bosnia and Herzegovina fixtures is well documented, with a crucial World Cup qualifying fixture in October 2005 between the Zmajevi and Serbia and Montenegro evoking similar sentiments from the stands, as did a Euro qualifier in June 2011 away to Romania when a small section of the home crowd were heard chanting the obscenity.

In October 2016, UEFA handed a hefty five-figure fine to both the Croatian and Kosovar Football Federations after supporters were heard chanting “Srbe na Vrbe” (Hang Serbs from Willow Trees), while the Euro 2016 qualifier between Croatia and Italy, played behind closed doors at the Poljud Stadium in Split, turned into a farce after a swastika was engraved onto the pitch.

That incident in June 2015 saw Croatia deducted a point and fined, with the use of fascist chants and symbols, racist booing and political protests against the country’s federation being commonplace in the stands for Croatian national team fixtures in the last decade or so.

Who could also forget the debacle that occurred at the Partizan Stadium in October 2014 when a drone carried an inflammatory Greater Albania flag, causing an on-field scuffle between players from Serbia and Albania and home supporters, with the fixture ultimately abandoned by English referee Martin Atkinson after the Albanian players refused to return to the pitch fearing for their safety.

Notorious Serbian hooligan Ivan Bogdanov was present that night, four years after he had been pictured burning the Albanian flag at an away qualifier against Italy in Genoa, which was also abandoned with a 3-0 result awarded to Italy. Serbia was eventually deducted three points for the wild scenes against Albania after the Court of Arbitration for Sport awarded Albania a 3-0 win, overruling UEFA which had originally deducted Gianni de Biasi’s men three points.

Some observers questioned the ruling for further advancing the nationalist rhetoric and fuelling tensions between the two countries, given football took a back seat to ethnic hostilities that evening. In addition to this, Serbian fans – like their Croatian counterparts – have been fined before for racist jeering against England players at youth level in two separate incidents in Nijmegen in 2007 and Kruševac in 2012.

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Neighbours Macedonia and Bulgaria have also been fined for racist abuse of English players in games between the respective national teams in 2003 and 2011 respectively, with Slovenia receiving the same punishment as well for the same offence in 2002. The Football Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was fined after anti-Semitic chants marred Bosnia’s 3-1 victory over Israel in Zenica in June 2015.

Three months earlier, another Euro 2016 qualifier between Montenegro and Russia in Podgorica was abandoned after missiles thrown from the home end hit Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, with a further disturbance later on causing German referee Deniz Aytekin to call proceedings off.

The incidents highlight a wider problem in the terraces across the Balkans, whether that be in the domestic league competition or international fixtures, where hooliganism is commonplace for a region where many countries are still reeling from the various conflicts that occurred in the 1990s as a result of the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

The recurrence of such incidents also highlights the problem the respective football federations, authorities, UEFA and FIFA have when it comes to sanctioning and deterring such incidents from repeating. Heavy fines, such as the 100,000 euro penalty given to the football authorities in Zagreb in the aftermath of the Swastika episode in Split last year are of little consequence to supporters who don’t feel the brunt of any punishment themselves.

As recent incidents in Milan and Saint-Étienne have shown, many Croatian fans are happy for such disturbances to take place given the penalty is dished out to the same football federation they view with disdain and see as a blight to the progress of the national team and the game in general.

Croatia’s 2-0 win over Iceland recently was played behind closed doors and at an empty Maksimir Stadium, an all too common sight nowadays for more than one reason, as punishment for the behaviour of the Croatian fans in Albania last month. 

Speaking in the aftermath of Croatia’s 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic at the European Championships in June, Internazionale and Croatia midfielder Ivan Perišić voiced his frustrations after a section of supporters disrupted play for a few minutes in the closing stages of the contest: “Maybe it’s best we don’t play at all if these things keep happening,” said the 27-year-old. “We feel miserable. What follows will be difficult. We have to see the reaction of UEFA, but this no longer makes sense.”

The 3-0 forfeit handed against Serbia for the game against Italy in October 2010 did little to deter their supporters four years later from invading the field of play and attacking Albanian players who had gone up to confront Stefan Mitrović after the Serbia defender had attempted to take the flag down in an attempt to end the commotion and continue the game.

The chaos of the night and the escalation of Albania-Serbia tensions dominated news headlines in the region in the immediate aftermath, as acts of sportsmanship from Serbia players Branislav Ivanović and Aleksandar Kolarov – who protected their opponents – as a section of the Belgrade crowd threw projectiles down on them was lost in the nationalist hysteria which followed.

As the spiteful scenes in Athens and conduct of Croatian spectators over the years has shown, fines do little to stop such anti-social behaviour from persisting. Point deductions too, which have ultimately derailed Serbia’s hopes for qualifying for the last two European Championships, don’t have the desired effect either.

So what punishment is sufficient enough to prevent such conduct recurring while also not punishing the faultless players and wide majority of fans who behave themselves appropriately, with neither deserving of heavy-handed punishments such as higher point deductions or stadium bans?

Increased security measures for high-risk fixtures and away fan bans have also failed to deter unsavoury scenes, while the banning of certain problem supporters only prevents them from gaining stadium access, with many often causing trouble outside the arena instead.

The way things stand at the moment, there appears to be little which can be done to reduce tensions and the onset of hooliganism at football fixtures across the Balkans. Wider changes within society, economics and politics are perhaps necessary but appear uncertain in a time of heightened insecurity and societal divides in both the troubled region, and across Europe as a whole.

Instead, political activism and simmering frustrations are played out in the football terraces and will continue to do so for the time being with the authorities and the general public left frustrated by the spiralling violence and xenophobia present in the stands.

By Damir Kulas. Follow @DamirKulas

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