The Flag-Flying Drone That Sparked a Soccer Brawl

Hooliganism goes high-tech in Serbia.

Serbians and Albanians brawl during the Euro 2016 Group I qualifying soccer match in Belgrade. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Tuesday night brought a brand-new tactic in the long tradition of European soccer hooliganism: drone-launched taunting. At about the 42-minute mark of a qualifying match for the 2016 European Championship in Belgrade, Serbia, a cheerfully lit unmanned aerial vehicle appeared in the sky over the pitch, where the Serbian and Albanian national soccer teams were facing off. The UAV dangled a flag of "Greater Albania":

The offending flag in flight (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

The flag depicts the amalgamated lands inhabited by ethnic Albanians—including Kosovo, parts of Montenegro and Macedonia, and a few chunks of Serbia—as well as independent Albania's 1912 founder, Ismail Qemali (left), and Albanian nationalist Isa Boletini (right), who fought the Serbs and Ottomans prior to World War I. Serbian state television reports that the airborne smack-talk may have been launched by none other than the Albanian prime minister's brother, Olsi Rama, from his VIP box, though the Albanian interior minister has denied the charge.

Whoever held the remote, though, it was what one Serbian television announcer repeatedly called a provokacija in the midst of the Albanian team's first visit to Belgrade since 1967. In the intervening period, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic attempted to drive Albanians from the then-Serbian province of Kosovo following the breakup of Yugoslavia; NATO launched 78 days' worth of airstrikes in 1999 to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians; and Kosovo, in 2008, declared its independence. Independence has not brought reconciliation between Kosovo's Albanian majority and Serb minority.

Here's that flag again, with an accompanying soundtrack of shrieking spectators. The chant from Serbian fans, per The New York Times's translation, is "Kill! Kill! Kill!"

As the flag swept near the grass, it was forced to contend with Serbia's defense; defender Stefan Mitrovic snatched it from the air.

The best defense is a good offense. (Marko Djurica/Reuters).

That did not fly. Albanian players Andi Lila and Taulant Xhaka "immediately accosted" him, per The Guardian's play-by-play. In the videos below from Serbian TV and a spectator, via The New York Times, you can see the brawl start, then escalate.

The riot soon turns ugly as fans charge the field and chairs start flying. Ultimately, (starting around 1:45) the Albanian players flee the field in a hail of thrown objects as an exasperated duck mascot (3:00) removes his bird head. (It's not clear if he kept it on the whole time.) It was game over before halftime.

Given the profound tensions between the two countries, The Washington Post's Marissa Payne raises a good question: "Why did [the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)], the governing soccer body that oversees the tournament, let the blind draw that led to that particular match stand in the first place?" She pointed out that Tuesday wasn't the first time the tournament had thrust together former combatants for a "friendly" match: In 2008, Azerbaijan and Armenia—who continue to fight over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh—opted to forfeit rather than play each other; perhaps out of a surfeit of caution, UEFA prevented a Spain-Gibraltar match over sensitivities surrounding their centuries-old border dispute.

Meanwhile, Albania's team has returned from Belgrade to a hero's welcome.

Soccer fans in Tirana's main square following the abandoned Serbia-Albania game (Arben Celi/Reuters)
More fans (Arben Celi/Reuters)

As for the score when the game was called off? It was zero to zero.