Serbian officials expressed fear of a right-wing extremist plot against their country's entry to the European Union, after Serbian soccer hooligans clashed with Italian police Tuesday evening at the two countries' Euro 2012 qualifying game.
"Obviously somebody wants to demonstrate that Serbia is neither ready, nor mature enough to go to Europe," justice ministry state secretary, Slobodan Homen, said Wednesday in an interview with TV B92.
At least sixteen people were hospitalized and 17 Serb fans arrested in the northern Italian city of Genoa after violent riots caused a 40-minute delay to the match and then forced the game to be abandoned six minutes in.
Part of a bigger plot
The president of the Serbian football organization FSS, Tomislav Karadzic, said the riots were organized in Belgrade, well ahead of the match.
"We have had hints that this would happen. These kids are just the executors, those who ordered this are in Belgrade," he told Serbian reporters after the game was abandoned, adding, "The state must react."
The Serb hooligans are believed by many to be part of an organized, ultra-nationalist movement to damage Serbia's chances at EU accession, according to German press agency dpa's Belgrade correspondent Boris Babic, who told Deutsche Welle that Serbia fears further damage to its reputation.
Babic said the soccer hooligans were part of the same movement that rioted in protest at Belgrade's pride parade, adding that there was a "group of maybe 500 individuals who are at the core of every violent event in the country since the 1990s."
He believes the hooligans to be mafia pawns, rather than true sports fans.
"These criminal organizations have used football for drug smuggling, for an exercise of political influence and whatever can be drawn from their position of power. They mostly get away without being sentenced to prison," he said.
Hooligans threw flares at the players
Two police officers and 14 fans were injured in clashes after the game. Police seized clubs and knives from Serb hooligans, who also hurled flares onto the pitch.
Italian authorities claim they were not warned by Serbia as to the danger posed by the hooligans, who arrived with banners proclaiming "Kosovo is ours." Newspaper reports have disputed the authorities' claim.
Originally, the hooligans had refused to sit in their designated area and had to be herded in by police.
"In the process, they were pushed in without any of them being checked or frisked," according to World Soccer's Rome correspondent, Paddy Agnew.
"These guys got in with all kinds of petards, smoke bombs, metal objects, garden sheers," he told Deutsche Welle, adding, "Obviously the Italian authorities will have to explain how that happened."
Also arrested was an Italian fan who attacked Serb supporters with a crowbar. The Italian team were wearing black armbands to show solidarity with the families of four Italian soldiers killed in Afghanistan last week.
Before the game, the Serbs’ first choice goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic was attacked by the fans, who threw a flare onto the team bus. Although Stojkovic was not seriously injured, he refused to play out of fear, choosing to remain in the dressing room.
Serb players may have encouraged hooligans
Incitement came from within the Serb soccer team, according to Agnew.
"The footballers made this three-finger signal which means ‘Greater Serbia.' They made that to their own fans," he told Deutsche Welle.
Italian coach Cesare Prandelli defended the Serb players.
"We asked our opponents to go to their fans to try to calm them down … I don't know what signs they made but they were clearly afraid," the trainer said.
'20 years of neglect'
Meanwhile, former Yugoslavia international player Savo Milosevic told Belgrade's B92 television that the violence in Genoa was the result of 20 years of government neglect.
"The government has been completely disinterested in sport and its problems over the last 20 years, hence Serbia is now paying a heavy price for the failure to tackle hooliganism swiftly and decisively," he said.
Tuesday's rioting is certainly not the first incident of violence by Serb hooligans.
In 2008, after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, a chanting crowd of young men left stadium stands to torch the US embassy in Belgrade and ransack several others.
Author: David Levitz
Editor: Rob Turner