On Tuesday, the national soccer teams of Serbia and Albania faced off in a tense European qualifying match in Belgrade. The geopolitical enmities between the two countries already meant that there were no traveling Albanian fans in the stadium. But that didn't prevent things, as they say across the pond, from kicking off.
Almost halfway through the match, a drone, apparently flown by an Albanian supporter, entered the stadium slinging beneath it a flag of greater Albania. That territory includes the state of Kosovo, once the southern wing of Serbia but now an independent state recognized by the European Union and the United States, but not Serbia. Kosovars are ethnically Albanian, and the country's separatist bid was long backed by their brethren to the south.
The word "autocthonous", emblazoned on the banner suspended from the drone, is a term invoked in various corners of Europe, in reference to the "indigenous" population of the lands. Albanians consider themselves descendants of the Illyrians of antiquity, and therefore the true inhabitants of the Balkans as opposed to Slavic interlopers who came later. It's a provocative message in a part of the world that has seen myriad conflicts stirred by ethnic nationalism.
This video, shot from the sidelines, shows what happens after a Serbian defender decides to take down the Albanian flag. The crowd roars its approval, but then Albanian players try to reclaim the banner, leading to scuffles. Serbian fans then proceed to rush the field and attack a few Albanian players. The match was soon abandoned.
The aftermath has been acrimonious. Serbian press accused the brother of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama of being responsible for the stunt. He denied this charge; Albania's team returned to the country's capital, Tirana, to a hero's welcome, with thousands of flag-waving fans greeting them at the airport.
Rama is due to arrive in Serbia next week, the first official visit by an Albanian leader in seven decades.
Serbian officials were not pleased with the scenes, and invoked longstanding grievances Belgrade has over its treatment by the international community. "If someone from Serbia had unveiled a flag of Greater Serbia in Tirana [capital of Albania] or Pristina [capital of Kosovo]," said Ivica Dacic, Serbia's foreign minister, to a local newspaper, "it would already be on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council."
"Football should never be used for political messages. I strongly condemn what happened in Belgrade last night," said Sepp Blatter, president of international soccer's governing body, FIFA.
But in the case of Balkan nations, that's wishful thinking. The world's most popular sport has long been a vehicle to channel tensions elsewhere, especially after the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Serbia, in particular, has come in for criticism for right-wing hooliganism and racism at its matches.
In 2010, rioting and flares hurled onto the field by Serbian fans at a match between Serbia and Italy in the Italian city of Genoa forced the game to be abandoned within seven minutes of play starting. The Italian coach at the time said he had "never seen anything like it."