“I feared for the safety of my teammates. I tried to neutralise the first fan but they were coming at us from all around the pitch and it became impossible.”
October 14th 2014 was always going to be a potential flashpoint in Belgrade. It was the first time in 50 years that an Albania team had visited the city and all day the place had been an uneasy mix of nervous anticipation and staid tension. Nobody, though, could have forecast the storm that was gathering.
From the moment Serbia defender Stefan Mitrovic pulled the drone-flown flag of ‘Greater Albania’ out of the Belgrade sky lighting the touch-paper for a full-scale riot involving players, fans and police, the face of European football acquired a fresh and unwelcome scar. The whole thing had lasted a little over three minutes but the fall-out is still being felt one year on.
Lazio defender Lorik Cana will lead Albania out when the sides meet again on Thursday, just as he did in Belgrade a year ago. That night he was at the heart of the brawl which ultimately led to the match being abandoned, landing a punch on the pitch invader who had attacked his teammate Bekim Balaj with a pitch-side stool. He has no regrets about his role at Partizan Stadium.
“I’d do exactly the same thing again,” he tells me in the build-up to Thursday’s rematch in Elbasan. “When you’re a team – and especially when you are one of the older members of that team and are leading by example –you consider them like your brothers. If someone from outside of the pitch is going to come and attack one of my teammates my first instinct is to protect him.
“It was just something completely natural. If it had happened to me my teammates would have done the same thing so my first thought at that moment was the safety of my team. I don’t regret what I did, no. I’d have done anything in my power to protect Bekim and all of my team.”
Placing blame has proved difficult, and it isn’t as though precautions hadn’t been taken. No visiting Albania fans had been admitted to Partizan Stadium save for a small number of official delegates, and the police presence in and around the ground was intense.
Besides this was no longer the late 90’s when the Balkan peninsular was still healing after a decade of inter-ethnic wars. In 2014 diplomatic channels were open between Serbia and Albania, and political extremism had been democratically marginalised. What happened looked strangely out of place in the arena of modern football.
“It wasn’t an easy situation for anyone. The whole thing got out of control so quickly and no-one knew how to react. It took the referee two minutes I think to get the teams off the pitch and in that time we were being attacked by the fans.”
Cana is referring to the gauntlet that both sides had to run as they fled the pitch under a hail of missiles and yet more pitch invaders, yet the UEFA sanctions that were imposed in the aftermath bore a striking dissonance to the carnage on the pitch.
Serbia were docked three points for failing to control their fans but astonishingly were also given a 3-0 walkover after the Albania players refused to return to the pitch causing the match to be abandoned. The ruling drew despair and scathing criticism at home in Albania, not least from the set-upon Balaj who sarcastically tweeted “Sorry Platini for the stool I almost broke with my head. Bravo UEFA.”
Some saw the ruling as a flagrant disregard for UEFA’s bid to tackle racism in its stadiums, in lieu of the anti-Albanian chanting that poisoned the air in the short forty minutes that the match lasted. EHFH board member Cimi Shakohoxha claimed that the decision “[flew] in the face of UEFA’s stated aim to eradicate racism from the game. It’s not about the points – it’s about fighting racism.”
The backlash worked. In July the Court of Arbitration for Sport sided with the EHFH and ruled that the match had been forfeited by Serbia, reversing the 3-0 walkover and awarding the victory to Albania. For some however it has done little to temper the memories of Belgrade.
“I was in the stadium that night and what I saw there will remain forever in my mind,” Albanian Football Federation (EHFH) president Armand Duka tells me. “Nothing that happened in that nightmare in Belgrade should be reflected on the pitch in Elbasan. Our players, but even the opponents who were like friends to us in their home, will simply play a football match.
“What happened that night in Belgrade has no chance of being repeated in Elbasan. We are lucky as we have the maximal support of the government and all law protection institutions” he adds, in a thinly veiled swipe at the Serbian authorities’ handling of Belgrade.
Albanian football is in a position of strength it has never before enjoyed. Guaranteed at least a play-off spot for Euro 2016 everything is in place for Cana’s team to make history in the coming days and weeks as the first from the country to make it to a major finals. When they meet Serbia in Elbasan there can be no risk of a repeat of last October – the future of Albanian football may depend on it.
“Our country and our supporters realise the importance of giving a good image of Albania in this game,” says the skipper. “We know that we have to get through this game without any problems, and I know that we will. For the players we’re just treating it like any other game.”
“It’s our target and it’s our dream, for the first time in history to be qualified for an international tournament. It’s all any of us are thinking about. It’s been a huge job over the last ten years to try and put this success together and now we have to make sure it happens.”
1,500 hundred police personnel are scheduled to be at Elbasan Arena on Thursday to keep the peace and ensure it’s the team’s qualification bid that makes the headlines. Victory against Serbia will put Albania on the brink, and could secure qualification with a game to spare if results elsewhere in Europe go their way.
That would mark quite a contrast to the ignominy of being chased from the pitch in Belgrade a year ago, and would mean that for Cana and Duka some of the ghos1ts of that night might finally be laid to rest.
“We have urged our fans to turn this into a true celebration of Albanian football,” says the president. If all goes to plan on Thursday those celebrations will likely be heard all the way to Belgrade.
By Robert O’Connor