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Why did UEFA let the Albania-Serbia Euro 2016 qualifier happen?

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Questions are looming over the riots that led English referee Martin Atkinson to abandon the Albania vs. Serbia European Championship 2016 qualifying match on Tuesday. The main one: Why did UEFA, the governing soccer body that oversees the tournament, let the blind draw that led to that particular match stand in the first place?

Surely, the tournament’s officials were aware of the NATO-led 78-day war waged in the 1990s in Kosovo, a territory much of the world now recognizes as partially independent, while Serbia continues to claim it as its own. It’s a territory that’s home to majority ethnic Albanians, including members of Albania’s soccer team. Even if both countries’ delegations reassured the organization that everything would go smoothly, past experience should’ve led at least one of the tournament’s organizers to wonder, “What could possibly go wrong?” and maybe prevent it from happening.

The disastrous matchup that took place Tuesday was not the first time UEFA has had trouble trying to match two teams from countries with a recent war history. When the blind draw in the Euro 2008 qualifiers put Azerbaijan and Armenia in the same group, UEFA did nothing. It was the two countries, which had recently waged war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory, that ultimately decided to avoid conflict, cancel the match and forfeit their tournament points. Per WorldSoccer.com:

“[T]he Azeri refused to face an Armenian team on home soil, in spite of the latter volunteering to foot the bill for security in both fixtures. Azerbaijan offered to play the games on neutral territory, Armenia vetoed the proposal and UEFA played the only card it had left and simply cancelled both matches.”

Learning a lesson, perhaps, when the under-19 sides were drawn to meet in the 2014 tournament, UEFA decided to step in and change the draw results. Armenia was moved from Group 4 to Group 9, Armenia’s News.Am reported in 2013, and the two played out the tournament peacefully.

More recently, during the same draw that put Serbia and Albania together in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, UEFA decided to alter the outcome when Spain and Gibraltar ended up in the same group. The two territories have had a border dispute for centuries, but recently (as in the last several decades), the fight for sovereignty has been played out in parliaments instead of on battlefields. UEFA’s manufactured separation of Spain and Gibraltar actually seemed silly to some because of the perceived lack of intensity of the situation to outsiders. Here’s Marina Hyde from The Guardian:

“Which tends to be worse: politicians attempting to do sports administration, or sports administrators attempting to do politics? … They’ve had a meeting about it in Bilbao, apparently, and it has reportedly been decided because of the ‘sensitivities’ between Spain and Gibraltar, over which the Spanish claim sovereignty, but which is formally classed as a British Overseas Territory.”

While it may seem silly that countries can’t put aside history and politics for a 90-minute game, it’s better for UEFA to err on the side of safety if there are any real security concerns at all.

Which brings us to Tuesday in Belgrade where there were very, very real concerns about safety. Albania’s coach Giovanni de Biazzi of Italy has reported to Albanian media that four of his players were injured in the scuffle (via ESPN). Serbian media is complaining the brother of the Albanian prime minister incited the riots with the drone stunt. It isn’t fair to either team — or either team’s spectators — to ask them to play a fair game when they’re not given fair conditions to do so. With that in mind, wouldn’t it have just been better for everyone if UEFA did for Albania and Serbia what it did for Spain and Gibraltar?

“It is a regretful situation on which we will report: the referee, myself and the security adviser,” UEFA’s match delegate, Harry Been, said on Tuesday after the match was abandoned (via The Guardian). “You all saw what happened, and I cannot comment on who is to blame or what to blame. I will submit a report with my colleagues to UEFA and UEFA will decide what will happen further.”

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