Tensions between Balkan rivals spill into Euro 2024 – and beyond

<span>Albania’s Mirlind Daku apologised after he was accused of leading his country’s fans in derogatory chanting.</span><span>Photograph: James Baylis/AMA/Getty Images</span>
Albania’s Mirlind Daku apologised after he was accused of leading his country’s fans in derogatory chanting.Photograph: James Baylis/AMA/Getty Images

Given a 24-team European Championship is hardly light on workload it may have stretched resources at Uefa when, at different points last week, two additional countries weighed in. Neither Kosovo nor North Macedonia qualified to compete in Germany but felt they had been given no choice. Both football associations needed to be heard after hearing their nations degraded in the stands and, in one case, on the pitch during the tournament’s opening week.

Where to begin after two-thirds of a group stage that has, predictably, given the lie to notion that football and political sentiment sit apart? Serbia, Albania and Croatia had never appeared at the same senior finals so perhaps it is no surprise the Balkan countries have racked up an extensive rap sheet over the past seven days. They have not necessarily had to cross paths for longstanding tensions to be inflamed, nor for some of their neighbours to have been dragged into the muck by provocations that too often rear up in the melting pot of a football stadium.

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Events threatened to reach a head when the football federation of Serbia’s general secretary, Jovan Surbatovic, hinted his country might pull out of the tournament if Croatia and Albania were not punished for apparent hate chanting from the stands. Uefa investigators will look into the claim that both sets of fans joined in a song, when the sides met in Hamburg on Wednesday, that explicitly endorsed killing Serbs.

In reality Serbia will not be going home, or at least not until their inability to make good on a talented attacking generation means they run out of road again. Surbatovic’s comments were news to Dragan Stojkovic as the manager basked in a face-saving late equaliser against Slovenia. He was more than entitled to feel furious at chants that, if proved, were far beyond the pale. The threat to depart early was almost certainly for the benefit of a domestic audience and perhaps it would be better all round, throughout the region, if those in positions of power rationed the red meat more strictly.

That includes the players, so there was despair among sections of Albanian society when a pumped-up Mirlind Daku, flushed from his fine team’s riveting 2-2 draw with Croatia, apparently shouted “fuck Macedonia” and “fuck Serbs” into a megaphone. The enmity with Serbia, in which the Kosovo-born Daku will have been steeped, needs little introduction; there was bemusement at his other target given relations with North Macedonia are hardly frayed and three of his teammates were born there. Daku has apologised.

The incident moved North Macedonia’s FA to make an official complaint. “Sports, especially football, is the basis for keeping people of different nationalities and an environment for cooperation and respect,” it said. “Nationalist rhetoric, however, undermines these principles, fuelling division and hostility between fans and societies.”

Two days previously, the football federation of Kosovo (FFK) had complained to Uefa about “flags, slogans and chants by Serbian fans with political, chauvinistic and racist messages” during the match between Serbia and England. Chants claiming Serbia’s supremacy over Kosovo, an especially emotive topic given the appalling war of the late 1990s, were audible from the stands. They could be heard on Thursday, too, during Serbia’s meeting with Slovenia in Munich. “Calls against the state of Kosovo in a major event like Euro 2024 are motivation for nationalist groups and threaten the fragile security of the region,” the FFK wrote.

Linking those misdemeanours to real-time politics was a smart move. Northern Kosovo, where most of the country’s Serb minority live, is an unhappy place where tensions have appreciably risen over the past two years. Few seriously believe another full-scale conflict is imminent. But it takes only a brief visit to Belgrade to see large, fresh, perhaps tacitly state-sanctioned, murals talking up another offensive. Russia takes an active interest in the region, with uncertain ramifications. A few thousand chants in a stadium may have no immediate impact on society but nobody can guarantee that its longer-term effect will not help legitimise potentially catastrophic attitudes more widely.

The hope is that tournament venues, if not always pleasant, will at least remain peaceful. Croatia and Serbia, who last met 11 years ago, cannot face one another until at least the semi-finals, which feels a remote prospect. Serbia and Albania are in a similar position, perhaps mercifully. Versions of the “autochthonous” flag, displaying a notional Greater Albania, that sparked chaos at a Euro 2016 qualifier in October 2014 have been witnessed among Albania’s fans in Germany.

A swathe of the supporters who have chanted, waved flags or brandished slogans were not alive when the Kosovo war or earlier, similarly horrific conflicts elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia broke out. Inherited memory, poor economic prospects and neglectful governments are just three reasons why toxic nationalism becomes an easy movement for young men, and a proportion of women, to get behind. But few in the region have been unaffected by the tragedy and bloodshed that unfolded three decades ago, or its legacy. No foreigner or sporting body will solve anything by advising everyone to calm down and let it go.

They would certainly not dare say that to the Kosovan journalist Arlind Sadiku, who had his accreditation for Euro 2024 withdrawn after making an Albanian “eagle” sign during a broadcast in front of Serbia fans in Gelsenkirchen. As a child during wartime, Sadiku’s family home was bombed while he slept and he must live with that trauma. The decision to eject him was, given that context, highly questionable. The authorities’ problem is where to set the bar: in an area of impossibly complex feuds, histories, social codes and modern realities, no accumulation of wrongs adds up easily to a right.

Punishments will follow, presumably akin to the fines Serbia and Albania have received for behaviour at the matches with England and Italy respectively. Perhaps Uefa’s eyes will stray elsewhere too: on Friday a sign bearing the slogan “Defend Europe”, a far-right slogan of the extremist Identitarian movement, was displayed among Austria’s support at their match against Poland in Berlin. It has been condemned by Austria’s football association and again shows that, to start with, the authorities must finally get a grip on such banners entering venues and their perimeters.

In a surprising development last month, Serbia and Albania confirmed they had proposed to jointly stage the 2027 Uefa under-21 championship. Perhaps it will be a watershed moment for diplomacy and social cohesion. A successful pushback against the vortex of negativity that has again engulfed both nations, and their part of the world, this summer will be enough for now.