- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

Serbia received tougher sanctions than Albania when UEFA punished the Balkan rivals on Friday for the on-field violence sparked by a banner being flown by a drone over the stadium.

The European Championship qualifier in Belgrade was abandoned last week after an Albanian nationalist banner was flown in by a remote-controlled device, sparking fighting among players and fans.

Although the source of the banner remains unclear, UEFA ruled that Albania forfeited the Oct. 14 match because its players refused to return to the pitch amid the disorder. UEFA’s disciplinary body awarded Serbia a 3-0 win, but docked the three points gained by a win.

Serbia was also ordered to play its next two Euro 2016 qualifiers behind closed doors without fans, starting with next month’s game against Denmark, as a result of crowd disturbances and fireworks and missiles that were set off during the Albania game.

The Serbian and Albanian federations were each fined 100,000 Swiss Francs ($105,000). UEFA’s verdict was criticized by both countries, further inflaming ethnic tensions in the Balkans.

The Albanians expected the game to be awarded to them as a victory and are planning to appeal. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama complained there was “no justice” from UEFA and backed the football federation “to open a legal battle to the end.”

Despite being awarded no points from the game, Albania remains tied with Denmark on four points in the leading positions in Group I. Serbia, which is coached by Dick Advocaat, has just one point after playing twice, the same as last-place Armenia.

“I have a feeling that someone does not want to see Serbia play at the European Championship in France,” Advocaat said in a statement that didn’t expand on the reasons. “The Albanians did not want to play the match under any circumstances, that night, with or without spectators, nor the next day.”

The Serbian federation will appeal against a verdict it called “contradictory,” as the sports minister Vanja Udovicic questioned the logic of awarding the win while immediately annulling it.

“If Albania was only fined, that could open the doors for more such incidents at sports venues,” Udovicic said.

But Albania coach Giovanni de Biaisi criticized UEFA for denying his team “what we deserved on the pitch,” and federation president Armand Duka said he was “disillusioned.”

“I do not understand what precedent this may set when a squad physically beats the opposing players on the pitch,” Duka told private TV station Ora-News. “I do not know if there is a greater scandal than this.”

This is the latest chapter in decades of friction between Serbia and Albania, mainly over Kosovo, a former ethnic Albanian-dominated Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia has never accepted Kosovo’s independence.

UEFA deemed that because there is no ongoing conflict between Serbia and Albania they should not be separated in qualifying like Armenia and Azerbaijan, who have a territorial dispute, and Gibraltar and Spain, who are at odds over the sovereignty of the British territory.

In Albania’s first match in Belgrade since 1967, the visiting national anthem was loudly jeered by Serbian fans and derogatory chants were heard throughout. Serbian supporters also threw flares and other objects at Albanian players.

During the game, a banner showing a so-called map of “greater Albania” including Greece, Macedonia and Serbia was flown in by drone. A Serbia player pulled the banner down, while Albanian players tried to protect it. Fans hurled broken seats and other objects, and attacked Albanian players, who fled to the dressing room and refused to return.

As it stands, Albania will be hosting Serbia in the return match on Oct. 8, 2015 in the penultimate game in qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals.

Denmark is unhappy that its fans will be excluded from the match in Serbia on Nov. 14 as a result of UEFA’s sanction.

“Looking ahead, we will focus our efforts so that the Danish fans who have already bought a trip to Belgrade before the UEFA sanctions will not be affected by the spectator ban,” Claus Bretton-Meyer, head of the Danish football federation said in a statement.

Bretton-Meyer said he will contact the Serbian federation and UEFA to push for Danish fans to be allowed access to the game and offer assurances about the safety of the visiting players.

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AP writers Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, and Jan Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

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