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Euro 2024 a stage for nationalist sentiments, or worse

Chuck Penfold | Andreas Sten-Ziemons
June 24, 2024

UEFA's disciplinarians have been kept busy by fans from several Balkan nations at Euro 2024. Much of the animosity between them stems from the wars that led to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Serbian fans in the Gelsenkirchen arena
UEFA has charged the Serbian Football Association over symbols displayed by their fans in their first matchImage: dts-Agentur/picture alliance

What incidents of provocation have occurred at Euro 2024 so far?

Perhaps the most provocative case was the reported chanting by Croatian and Albanian fans at their Euro 2024 Group B match in Hamburg last Wednesday. After the match, the general secretary of the Serbian Football Association (FSS), Jovan Surbatovic, claimed that both sets of fans had been heard chanting "Kill, kill, kill the Serb."

In a separate incident, Albania striker Mirlind Daku was observed using a megaphone to lead fans in nationalist chants about Serbia and North Macedonia. UEFA subsequently suspended the player for two games, although he has since apologized for the incident.

These were by no means isolated incidents of antagonism on the sidelines of Euro 2024 linked to lingering animosity between Balkan nations, some of which went to war during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

Mirlind Daku yelling into a microphone in a stadium
Albanian striker Mirlind Daku has been suspended for two matchesImage: Sergei Mikhailichenko/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/picture alliance

The Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK), which failed to qualify for the tournament, complained to UEFA about "Serbian fans displaying political, chauvinistic, and racist messages against Kosovo" during Serbia's 1-0 defeat by England in their opening match. 

Photos of the crowd at the match show a Serbian flag in an outline of a map of the country incorporating Kosovo and including the words "nema predaje" (no surrender). Kosovo, whose population is mainly ethnic Albanian, declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. But Belgrade does not recognize it as a separate state, still regarding the former province as part of its territory.

UEFA's Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body fined the FSS €10,000 ($10,700) for "transmitting a provocative message not fit for a sports event" during the game against England.

Meanwhile, UEFA has fined the Albanian Football Federation a total of €27,375 for the lighting of fireworks, thrown objects and a pitch invasion following their team's 2-1 loss to Italy on Saturday. It imposed a further fine of €10,000 after fans displayed a map with Albania's borders extending into neighboring countries' borders — a concept commonly known as "Greater Albania."

In a separate decision, UEFA have canceled the media credentials of Kosovar journalist Arlind Sadiku for the tournament. The FSS had asked for his removal for seeking to provoke Serbian fans by making a double-headed eagle gesture with his hands.

The gesture symbolizes the two-headed eagle on Albania's national flag, which can stir up nationalist tensions between Serbians and ethnic Albanians, who make up the vast majority of Kosovo's population.

What have the national federations said?

The president of the Albanian Football Federation FSHF, Armand Duka, has condemned all provocative actions against other nations.

"We don't support any groups that attempt to instrumentalize us in chanting meant to further their goals," he told DW at a press conference in Düsseldorf on Monday.

"In no way should such racist or nationalist chants or calls [to action] be associated with our game."

For his part, FSS boss Surbatovic was outraged by the chants heard at the Croatia-Albania match. 

"What happened is scandalous and we will ask UEFA for sanctions, even if it means not continuing the competition," Surbatovic told Serbian state-owned broadcaster RTS after the final whistle.

He also threatened that Serbia could pull out of the tournament if UEFA, which governs European football, failed to take what the FSS sees as sufficient action.

Asked about the banners at the England match that offended the FFK, Surbatovic played these down as "isolated cases."

Have such incidents happened before?

Euro 2024 is by no means the first footballing event where antagonism between Balkan nations has been played out.

A European Championship qualifier between Italy and Serbia in 2010 had to be abandoned, partly because Serbian fans had thrown pyrotechnics onto the pitch. Prior to this, an Albanian flag had been set ablaze by masked hooligans.

In October 2014, a Euro 2016 qualifying match between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade had to be abandoned after a drone carrying a flag depicting "Greater Albania," (including Kosovo) was flown into the stadium toward the end of the first half.

Serbian and Albanian players brawling during a match
A Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 qualifier had to be abandoned after a drone was used to fly a provocative flag into a Belgrade stadiumImage: Koca Sulejmanovic/picture alliance/dpa

After a Serbian player pulled down the flag, a brawl ensued, and the Albanian team fled to the dressing room.

Meanwhile, Croatia defender Josip Simunic was banned from the 2014 World Cup for leading the crowd after a qualifier in Split in chanting "Za dom spremni" (ready for the homeland), the greeting used by the World War II Ustasha regime.

Albanian fans have repeatedly attracted attention for displaying the emblem of the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) on their national flags or cheer by forming the symbol of the double-headed eagle with both hands.

Swiss internationals Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka were sanctioned by FIFA for making the same gesture with their hands at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Screcko Matic contributed to this report. 

Edited by: Matt Pearson