BELGRADE, Serbia — A small drone dangling an Albanian banner and circling the soccer field touched off fighting between Serbian and Albanian players and fans Tuesday, forcing a UEFA 2016 European Championship qualifier to be called off.
English referee Martin Atkinson halted the game in the 41st minute when Serbia striker Aleksander Mitrovic grabbed the banner and Albanian players tried to protect it. Several Serbian fans ran onto the field and clashed with Albanian players. The score was 0-0 at the time.
UEFA later said the game was later abandoned because of a “disturbance” on the field.
Albanian fans had been warned against attending the game. The rival Balkan nations have had turbulent relations, mainly over the former ethnic Albanian-dominated Serbian province of Kosovo that declared independence in 2008.
“We wanted to continue the game, but Albanian players said they were not psychologically ready,” Serbia captain Branislav Ivanovic said.
Both Serbian and Albanian fans have a long history of violence and racial abuse. In October 2010, the Italy-Serbia European Championship qualifier was disrupted in Genoa by violent Serbia fans. UEFA awarded Italy a 3-0 win.
On Tuesday, the Albanian anthem was loudly jeered by Serbian fans and derogatory chanting was heard throughout the first half. The drone, clearly visible in the lights of the stadium, made a series of passes above the field. The banner displayed an Albanian flag and a map of so-called “Greater Albania,” an area that comprises territory within today’s Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and northern Greece.
The banner also portrayed two Albanian nationalist leaders ? Ismail Qemali, who declared Albania’s independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 and Isa Boletini, an Albanian fighter against the Turks.
Fearing trouble, hundreds of riot police were deployed inside and outside the Partizan stadium in Belgrade. Dozens of Albanian fans, mostly from Kosovo and Montenegro, apparently managed to get inside despite warnings by Serbian security officials that they would be arrested if they carry Albanian symbols.
Thumbnail photo by Darko Vokinovic/The Associated Press