Tension over countries' first ever meeting
14 October ~ If it were another game – against Finland or Greece, perhaps – there would be mild surprise if the crowd exceeded 10,000. There certainly would not be the 3,500 armed policemen expected outside Partizan Stadium this evening, and nor would the newspapers be stoking up story after story about busloads of visiting supporters that included at least one "terrorist". And if it were another game, there might not be the sinking feeling associated with knowing that it would take an extraordinary outcome for football to make the biggest headlines.
But Serbia v Albania goes ahead this evening for the first time ever (the latter's last visit to Belgrade was 47 years ago, to play Yugoslavia) and at least 25,000 are expected to come out for this one. Most of them will attend from morbid curiosity, some through nationalist instincts, a tiny few may wish to cause trouble, a sullen rump has followed the Serbian team throughout its years of underperformance and will continue to do so.
They should, at least, be undisturbed. UEFA stepped in to stop an argument between the two countries' FAs relating to the ID required from visiting supporters, so no Albanians are likely to be present. Even though three coachloads are known to have departed Tirana regardless, with some rumoured to have arrived in Belgrade ahead of kick-off, it seems unthinkable that any will make it as far as the stands.
The sensitivities around the game are centred around Kosovo, the largely ethnic Albanian state whose claims to independence are disputed by the Serbs, of whose territory they believe it to still be a part. Kosovan Albanians, on the whole, feel an emotional pull towards their cultural homeland – one that was the subject of an appalling conflict between Albania and Serbia shortly before the turn of the millennium.
"The fans can hardly wait for this game and will be looking for a sporting revenge over Serbia for what happened in Kosovo over a decade ago," said Jorgis Memo, deputy editor-in-chief of Albania's largest sports daily, Panorama Sport. "I think in sports we have always had correct relations. As long as everything remains within the green field, I think we are fine. Outside of the football field it is another thing."
Which goes a long way towards explaining the reluctance to allow fans to be in anything like close proximity to one another here. And the football field is worth focusing on. Albania – whose squad contains a number of Kosovan-born players – have beaten Portugal and drawn with Denmark in a pair of results that bely their customary minnow status. Serbia, spoilt for Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A talent, are facing criticism for scraping to a draw in Armenia and, despite good form in the months prior, the crushingly negative reaction was ever thus.
Both teams have a chance to prosper in Michel Platini's expanded Euro 2016; third place, and a play-off, should be up for grabs. But it would be a wonder if the majority of tonight's 25,000-strong crowd made a beeline for the Group I table after a match enveloped by an atmosphere of suspicion and destructiveness. Nick Ames