Serbia vs. Albania in Belgrade brings their troubled history to the fore
BELGRADE, Serbia -- Strip it all back for the moment, and Tuesday night's match at Partizan Stadium is everything Michel Platini could have wished for.
The hosts are Serbia -- talent-laden but consistently disappointing and now overseen by a practiced coach in Dick Advocaat, a man who stands as qualified as anyone to conjure order from relentless negativity and chaos. The visitors, Albania -- surprise package of the Euro 2016 qualifiers so far and, with the UEFA president's expansion of the finals, justified in thinking that their improvement can be measured at least by third position in Group I a play-off place.
The game represents a shot at progress for everyone; optimism to cling onto for all bar the outright minnows. But it is rarely that simple, particularly in the Balkans and especially given that Serbia and Albania, when they walk out to a guttural roar in the south of Belgrade, will be doing so for the first time since the former's independence.
The significance of this might best be explained if Albania score against Advocaat's side -- if, for example, Bekim Balaj repeats the thudding volley that shocked Portugal in Aveiro last month or if Ermir Lenjani arrows in a goal similar to the slightly deflected effort that was nine minutes from beating Denmark on Saturday. The silence will be profound: there will, officially at least, be no Albanians in the stadium.
"I think it is no good to go without supporters, but this is what UEFA has advised," a clearly unhappy Albanian FA president, Armand Duka, told ESPN FC on Sunday a few hours after getting the governing body's memo. UEFA had reasonable cause to step in because the countries were at an impasse. Serbia had reportedly given Albania around 2,000 tickets for the game on one proviso: that each fan's name, passport number and address was handed over in return. That did not suit the Albanians but their complaints fell on deaf ears.
UEFA's intervention might breed the idea that Albania's federation has cut its nose off to spite its face -- 2,000 always looked a generous number for a fixture of this resonance -- but that would be to ignore the reason for their discontent.
It comes down, really, to Kosovo -- and that is a phrase that can be applied as shorthand for Serbian-Albanian relations as a whole. As Tim Judah writes in his seminal history, The Serbs: "So poisoned is the whole subject of Kosovo that when Albanian or Serbian academics come to discuss its history, especially its modern history, all pretence of impartiality is lost."
Kosovo, situated to the south of Serbia and the north-east of Albania, declared independence in 2008 having previously been part of Serbia. The Serbs still regard it as their own, but it is recognised by 56 percent of UN member states and its ethnic makeup is, depending on which side you refer to, overwhelmingly Albanian. (It's worth noting that figures vary wildly.)
The emotional significance goes as far back as 1389, when the Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman army in the Battle of Kosovo, which took place near its modern-day capital, Pristina. It has been much-mythologised in Serbian history. Far more recently, memories of the 1998-99 Kosovo War -- an appallingly brutal fight for the territory from which it has not really recovered -- still run deep.
Albania has a core of football supporters based in Kosovo. The state has its own national team now, which is permitted to play friendlies by FIFA and hopes to compete for the next World Cup, but there is a strong pull towards the idea of a "Greater Albania" and this is where allegiances lie at heart. The country's black and red eagle flew high at Kosovo's first official friendly, in March against Haiti. Yet telling the Albanians to provide travelling fans' details served an important purpose for the Serbs: it meant that supporters based outside Albania, and most pointedly in Kosovo, stood no chance of being allowed a ticket.
Despite the tensions involved, Kosovo's Albanians refuse to take UEFA's edict lying down. Albert Kastrati leads a Pristina-based group of ultras named Plisat. The banners his group holds up at FC Pristina games -- "United States of Albania" and the rest -- speak clearly enough of their loyalties. Kastrati is well known in Serbia and in the midst of this ticketing debate, the Belgrade media held him up as an example of the kind of Albanian that would be travelling to Partizan Stadium.
"Scandal -- KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] killer coming to Belgrade as Albania fan" ran a recent front-page headline in the Informer newspaper. "Criminals from Kosovo want to come to stadium -- Terrorists want to come to Belgrade as fans," screamed the back page of the same publication.
ESPN FC contacted Kastrati, who confirmed that he plans to lead a group of Kosovo-based supporters to the game.
"We are definitively going to Belgrade," he said. "As the Albanian FA agreed not to allow any Albania fans, we are getting tickets on our own in Belgrade. It is going to be some 100 fans from our group going there. We will bring our red and black shirts and scarves. We are not scared of going there. Let them arrest us."
Albanian sources suggest that other supporters from areas in the south of Serbia, in which they have a considerable ethnic presence too, will also be attempting to gain entry. It is a reasonable bet that Kastrati and company, at least, will not get particularly far.
Serbia's FA, inscrutable throughout the situation, released a terse statement on Monday emphasising that Albanian supporters attempting to attend would be "removed and prosecuted." Serbian fans will be banned from next year's return game in Elbasan too; some observers feel that attempts to create a peaceful environment been heavy-handed, with points-scoring the main object in mind.
Idro Seferi, a Kosovan-born journalist who works in Belgrade as a senior correspondent for the Albanian television station, Top Channel, believes there has been little real appetite to show that everyone can just get along.
"Kosovo has a bad past with Serbia," he says. "If Albania wins it is viewed as a kind of revenge for people from Kosovo. But there is a lot of politics involved and both sides are making it harder than it is. If there is a will, the fans can be there too. Of course there might be some insults thrown, but officials could have talked a bit more about how this match should be about sport and not so much an ethnic conflict. But they didn't. They just closed up in their offices and tried to protect themselves."
"I don't know who is scared of the fans, because this can be organised -- they could come and watch the match and go home together without needing to enter the city itself. But everything in the Balkans is about political will. I don't see why we cannot watch a match and be happy about it. Can't we just stay quiet and see whose team is better, stronger, faster like normal people?"
It would be nice, particularly as the answer is not clear-cut. Serbia have enjoyed an impressive 12 months, losing only to Brazil, drawing with France and Croatia and dishing out sound beatings to the likes of Wales and Macedonia. They feel like a talent pool waiting to explode, with Lazar Markovic, Dusan Tadic, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Branislav Ivanovic among the reasons why this should be the best team in the region and a serious European force.
But old frailties reared their heads in Armenia on Saturday, a fine late goal by Zoran Tosic and an astounding penalty-and-rebound save from Vladimir Stojkovic being required to prevent defeat in Yerevan. The performance was slated back home: Kolarov took time out to criticise fans "using keyboards to vent their own frustrations" afterwards and you were reminded that Serbia is never far from shooting itself in the foot.
In three years under the former Torino, Brescia and Udinese coach Gianni De Biasi, a solid Albania side has improved steadily, winning in Norway during the World Cup qualifiers and topping that easily with their 1-0 victory over the Portuguese. Get a result in Belgrade and a pleasant early surprise becomes a serious force in one of Euro 2016's closer-looking groups.
With a population of just 2.8 million, their sizeable diaspora comes into play and Kosovo's influence is visible throughout the team. Lenjani, the St Gallen midfielder, was born in Pristina -- so was the captain, Lorik Cana. In fact, Albania could field a team that is 70 percent Kosovan-born on Tuesday night. And that is reflected in one of the extra incentives they have been given: a Kosovan businessman working in Switzerland has offered the Albania team a 1-million euro reward if it defeats the Serbs.
Platini will hope that both sides close their minds to any background noise and provide further suggestion of method to his plan. But even if football takes the headlines, there is still the sense that Tuesday night might be an opportunity missed. On October 22, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama will visit Belgrade to discuss bilateral relations with his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vukic. No Albanian leader has visited Belgrade since Enver Hoxha in 1946.
It is significant, and maybe it brings a glimmer of hope that a repeat of Tuesday's fixture might one day be all about the game instead. Having a harmonious football match to oil the conversation would have done little harm, but the anticipation of that noticeable absense inside Partizan Stadium stands as a reminder that sport does not always have the power to untangle wider complexities.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.