The darker side of U21 football: Serbia’s absence and more

By Sonja Nikcevic

I am currently in Tel Aviv, living the dream -covering the UEFA U21 European championship and taking part in an AIPS Young Reporters workshop. I’ve spent the last few days running around from matches to press conferences and trying to find non-existent mixed zones. And it’s been great.

But, as the eight teams in Israel gear up for the second round of competition, and as my fellow Young Reporters attend their national press conferences and comment on their side’s performances, I can’t help but feel slightly bereft.

Serbia isn’t among the eight, and just that would be enough for disappointment, but unfortunately, it’s not all. The ‘Little Eagles’, or ‘Orlići’, as the team is known back home, are now branded with bitter scenes, the resounding air of controversy, and worst of all, charges of racism.

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Serbia and England squared off in the knock out phase of qualification for the Euros, and after a 1-0 loss in England, Serbia desperately needed a win on their home ground in Krusevac. It was England, however, that scored and secured a spot in Israel , and it was then that all hell broke loose. Objects were hurled at the pitch as the two teams and coaches started a free-for-all that culminated in punches being thrown and Danny Rose kicking a ball into the crowd. This was a crowd he later accused of racist, monkey chants.

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The FA and all of Britain called for Serbian national teams to be banned from all international competitions, and the issue continued to front page news for days to come. The Serbian Football Association and players denied claims of racism, calling the accusations nothing more than hearsay.

Serbia plays a very specific role in history and international relations and it is through sport that the nation now aims to show the world a very different, more positive side. Young athletes can be the best possible ambassadors, but matches and scenes like these can only darken an already tarnished image.

Serbia’s matches with Croatia, in any sport, any time, are known for their high risk factor, as is the local Belgrade derby between Partizan and Red Star. But an electric atmosphere, local rivalries and tensions that go back centuries are one thing, and racism is something completely different.

When Partizan and Rec Star meet

When Partizan and Rec Star meet

Racism is an enemy of sport, and a “dangerous and infectious disease”, unfortunately, it is especially present in football. Even more unfortunately for the FA, it is especially present in stadiums across the UK. The heightened attention that claims of racism are receiving also means that not all of these claims will be true.

I, unlike the British press at the time, am not blindly pointing fingers, just merely suggesting that highlighting some else’s alleged shortcomings, is often a case of projecting their own.

I was not at the stadium in Krusevac, a more rurally populated city in the south where racism could more easily be present than in Belgrade, and I have no answer to the question of what actually happened. However, two things are certain.

One, Serbia’s Football Association and entire government need to step up and address the matter of hooliganism, violence and any form of intolerance in and around stadiums. The issue is a long time coming, and if the nation insists on highlighting the importance of sport as an ambassador, then things that are rotten at the core must be eradicated. England had the exact same problems not long ago, and their solution is where Serbia needs to look to. A group of individuals driven by hate should not have the power to tarnish an entire nation.

And also, beyond the claims of racism and hostile atmospheres, lies the uncomfortable truth of Serbia’s U21 team – they were simply not good enough to qualify. Had they been anywhere near as prolific as their past generations, beating an uninspired England at home would not have been a problem. This way, it turned into more problems than one.

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