An Albanian player leads fans in chants against North Macedonia. Rival supporters unite to chant “Kill the Serbs”. A journalist from Kosovo receives death threats for an eagle gesture.

The bitter and often bewildering world of Balkan conflicts – stretching back to the breakup of Yugoslavia, World War Two and centuries beyond – has yet again spilled into the otherwise happy football fest of Euro 2024.

Eager to contain the proliferation of ugly incidents, European soccer’s governing body UEFA has imposed a slew of punishments while the football federations of various Balkan nations have appealed for peace and decorum.

“People cannot forget things from the wars. Then when they are at a football match, emotions are higher and can burst into flames in a second,” said commentator Igor Mladenovic, 58, who works for Sport Klub broadcaster in Serbia’s capital Belgrade.

“I hope that these incidents will end, but at least so far it has only been songs and messages from the tribunes. There has not been fighting between supporters.”

Though they did not qualify for the tournament, the small and mainly ethnic Albanian nation of Kosovo stirs most passions as Serbia still does not recognise its independence after one of the bloodiest of the 1990s post-Yugoslavia Balkan wars.

At Serbia’s match against England, Kosovar journalist Arlind Sadiku made a double-headed eagle gesture – mimicking the symbol of Albania’s flag – to Serbian fans during a live broadcast.

UEFA quickly rescinded his credentials.

“People don’t know how I was feeling in that moment because I have trauma from the war,” he told Reuters, adding that his act had brought murderous threats on social media.

Albanian forward Mirlind Daku got carried away at the end of his team’s 2-2 draw with Croatia, using a microphone to lead fans in offensive chants about neighbouring North Macedonia.

He apologised and blamed the intense emotions of the game – but was handed a two-game suspension anyway.

It was at that game in Hamburg where fans of both Croatia and Albania joined in unison to chant “Kill the Serbs”, a cry that first surfaced during the horrors of the 1990s wars.

Serbia threatened to quit the tournament and UEFA fined the Albanian football federation which laudably pleaded with fans to behave and not sully their team’s second major tournament appearance.

“The federation invites fans and football lovers to support the Albanian national team to the end in this magical and historic journey to Euro 2024, showing citizenship and responsibility through correct behaviour and respect for the rules and the opponents,” it said.


As for Serbia, some of their fans have been misbehaving too, chanting “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia”, and displaying a national flag with Kosovo inside Serbia’s borders.

In interviews with Reuters, fans of Balkan countries competing in Germany disassociated themselves from the hate speech, saying it came from a minority of hardcore fans often linked to criminal groups or political cabals back home.

“This is an embarrassment to us in the year 2024 when we want to show our best face to the world, that we are modern societies who are part of the international family,” said Nikola Kovacic, 47, a Croatian fan visiting with his children.

“Many of our players were not even born during all these troubles. I am ashamed when I hear some of the songs they sing. I cover my kids’ ears up. We are better than this.”

Albanian fan Adi Mati said there was no place for politics and racism in sport: “We’re here to have a good time and to support our country.”

Inter-ethnic Balkan feuds have long been pervading football since a notorious riot between fans of Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in 1990 injured scores of people and, in some accounts, was one of the triggers for war.

Fan ultras later fought as soldiers together.

Among countless other incidents, a Euro 2016 qualifier between Serbia and Albania was abandoned after a drone flew over with a flag showing an enlarged “Greater Albania”, sparking a players’ brawl.

At the World Cup in 2018, Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, both with Albanian and Kosovar roots, were fined for their eagle-imitation goal celebrations.

And at Euro 2020, Austrian forward Marko Arnautovic, who has Serbian roots, was banned for a game after a provocative goal celebration against North Macedonia

Sports commentator Mladenovic said that as well as an inevitable boiling over of passions in the charged atmosphere of international football matches, governments in the Balkans bore responsibility for fanning frictions for political gain.

“Many people have tragic histories with the wars. But they want to get on with their lives now,” he said.

Euro 2024 organisers had done well, Mladenovic said, to avoid any fighting so far, though they were helped by the fact Serbia had not been drawn against Croatia or Albania.

Fortunately for German police and UEFA, there is now next to no chance of that happening later in the tournament.