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How Balkan tension is fuelling decades-old animosity at Euro 2024

Fans of Serbia at the official UEFA Fan Zone during the Group V match between Slovenia and Serbia on June 20, 2024 in Munich, Germany
There has been palapable tension in the air among fans of former Yugoslavian nations - Getty Images/Jasmin Walter

Beefing up the European Championship finals from 16 teams to 24 is good news for broadcasters and advertisers but has had some unintended consequences. One is an increased chance of internecine Balkan tension, especially when Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and Albania qualify for the same tournament.

Of Uefa’s 55 member countries, seven are the former Yugoslavian nations. With the addition of Albania, which shares borders with three of those as well as Greece, it has led to a litany of incidents since the tournament began. A brief recap:

Serbia’s fans held up a banner decorated with the outline of Kosovo and the words “no surrender”. Albanian player Mirlind Daku held up a megaphone to join in with fans’ chanting “f--- Serbia” and “f--- Macedonia” after his side’s draw with Croatia, he has now been banned for two games. Kosovar journalist Arlind Sadiku made a double-headed Albanian eagle gesture to Serbian fans during their game against England, he had his credentials revoked by Uefa

Mirlind Daku of Albania takes a megaphone and chants during the UEFA EURO 2024 group stage match between Croatia and Albania at Volksparkstadion on June 19, 2024 in Hamburg, Germany
Albania's Mirlind Daku was banned for taking part in nationalist chanting - Getty Images/James Baylis

Some Slovenian fans joined Serbs in chanting the nationalist Serbian song “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia”. There was a banner spotted behind the goal during Italy vs Albania reading “Kosovo is Albania”. Croatia and Albania fans chanted “Kill, kill, kill the Serb,” during their draw. Serbia threatened to quit the tournament.

And so it has gone and may continue to go, a series of tit-for-tat responses from increasingly riled up players and fans. Unrest in the region is certainly nothing new, and nor is football becoming the focal point for nationalist sentiment. Albania were awarded a 3-0 win in 2015 after a drone trailing a political banner appeared above their Euros qualifier against Serbia in Belgrade.

Inflammatory banners are a common sight throughout football in the region. “If you go to any football match in the Balkans there are always nationalist slogans,” says Kenneth Morrison, professor of modern Southeast European History at De Montfort University. “The difference here is they’re being aired on the international stage.

“Stadiums are a forum through which nationalist sentiments are expressed. When you’re in the region speaking to people they are not expressing those sorts of sentiments on a daily basis. But football is one of the main channels nationalist sentiments are transmitted.”

Much of the current tension centres on Kosovo which declared independence in 2008. Serbia has never recognised it (nor do Russia, China and Spain among others) and likely never will, which is a source of anger for Albanians, who make up a majority of the Kosovan population. All of the enmity is stoked by horrible violence in living memory, still-raw scars from the Yugoslavian conflicts of 1991-2001. Serbia in general does not acknowledge the crimes its army committed during those wars which creates enduring hostility.

“That’s not a source of instability as such, you just have very different nationalist understandings of one another,” says Dr Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz. “Croats believe Serbs were mostly responsible for the wars in Yugoslavia and crimes committed in Croatia. And then again, Serbs think of the way in which many were expelled from Croatia at the end of the war and resent Croatia for that.” Serbia’s populist president Aleksandar Vucic is fond of nationalist rhetoric, which certainly has not helped.

Sometimes the links between football and violence in the region has been even more pronounced. “In the 90s quite a few of the fans’ ultras groups were used to recruit for paramilitaries,” says Dr Bieber. “They often had links to the criminal underground and created groups who fought in the wars. So in the 90s there was a very close link between the worst crimes and the most radical football fans.”

And yet it would be wrong to assume that the day to day lives of Serbs, Croats, Albanians and Slovenians are as volatile as this tournament might suggest. Many Serbs go on holiday to Croatia and vice versa. The languages of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia are largely the same so people in those countries listen to each other’s music, watch each other’s films and read each other’s books.

Fan of Slovenia during the UEFA EURO 2024 group stage match between Slovenia and Serbia at Munich Football Arena on June 20, 2024 in Munich, Germany
Nationalist sentiment is not as much part of normal life in Balkan countries as it is during football matches - Getty Images/Franz Kirchmayr

“There’s a sense of commonality,” says Dr Bieber. “So you have this very conflicting trend in the society. On one side, you have people interact with one another, sometimes in a positive way. But then you have these nationalist stories, which are fed often from the top down. People are socialised with what they hear in school, and football games help to kindle that antagonism sometimes.”

“Most people in the region want to get on with their lives,” says Professor Williams. “They want to live in peace, they want better economic possibilities for themselves and their children. They’re sick of instability.” They may look forward to a calmer time, when the football is over. They and Uefa can at least give thanks that because of Monday night’s results Serbia playing either Croatia or Albania in a knockout game is now impossible.