Albania’s footballers return to a heroes’ welcome after the abandonment of their match against Serbia. A brawl broke out after a drone trailed an Albanian nationalist flag around the stadium.
There were clashes between players late in the first half as the Serbians tried to dispose of the “Greater Albania” flag, which the Albanians sought to protect. Tuesday’s match in Belgrade had also been delayed by flares thrown on to the pitch by home fans during the first half.
On Wednesday morning, up to 3,000 flag-waving supporters gathered outside Tirana’s airport to cheer the Albanian team, the Associated Press reported.
The country’s prime Minister Edi Rama, who is abroad, praised the players on his Twitter page for “the pride and joy they gave” to Albania and said he was “present in my heart” at the airport reception.
Albanian foreign minister Ditmir Bushati tweeted that “football should not be hijacked by extremism”, adding that he was proud of the team, which “showed courage and maturity”.
Albania goalkeeper Etrit Berisha thanked the fans for the welcome, writing on his Facebook page that “defending our national symbols is a duty” for the players.
During a break in play late in the first half, the drone appeared over the stadium trailing a flag depicting a map of Albania enlarged to include chunks of its neighbours. There was tension in the ground which boiled over after a Serbian player grabbed the flag and the Albanian players reacted angrily.
The drone appeared to be remote-controlled and Serbian media reported that the brother of the Albanian prime minister Edi Rama, was arrested in the VIP section on suspicion of instigating the flag stunt.
According to Reuters, Albanian interior minister Saimir Tahiri said that, to the best of his knowledge, Olsi Rama had left the stadium for the airport, according to information he had from Serbia’s interior ministry and Albanian officials in Belgrade.
Asked if Rama had been arrested on suspicion of organising the drone stunt, Tahiri told the agency: “Not to my knowledge. It’s speculation.”
Fans of both nations have a long history of violence and racial abuse. Albanian fans were warned against attending the game, for which away fans were banned. The game was 0-0 when it was abandoned by British referee Martin Atkinson.
The two countries have endured turbulent relations, mainly over the former ethnic Albanian-dominated Serbian province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. Serbia has never accepted Kosovo’s independence.
Fans invaded the pitch after the abandonment of the match.
Serbia captain Branislav Ivanovic said: “On behalf of my team, all I can say is that we wanted to carry on and that we shielded the Albanian players every step of the way to the tunnel (after the riot broke out).
“The Albanian team said they were unfit physically and mentally to carry on after talking to the officials and they will now decide the fate of this match. We can only regret that football took a back seat but it is difficult to draw any conclusions or make any comments now.”
UEFA match delegate Harry Been said: “It is a regretful situation on which we will report; the referee, myself and the security advisor. The circumstances were such that we couldn’t continue the match.
“You all saw what happened and I cannot comment on who is to blame or what to blame. I will submit a report with my colleagues to UEFA and UEFA will decide what will happen further.”