By Fatjona Mejdini and Igor Jovanovic
Albania is deploying hundreds of extra police ahead of Thursday’s football match with Serbia, to ensure there is no repeat of what happened when the two sides met in Serbia last year.
Albanian police spokesman Gentian Mullai told BIRN on Monday that tough measures are planned to secure a potentially high-risk football match between Albania and Serbia in Elbasan on Thursday.
Mullai said 1,500 state police will be deployed alongside 400 private security officers contracted by the Albanian Football Association. Another 100 additional officers will come from the Albanian National Guard.
“These forces will cover every aspect of the security required for this match and more can be added if we will need to,” the spokesperson told BIRN.
Tension is high ahead of the match following a disastrous first encounter between the two teams in Belgrade last October, which ended up in a brawl.
After a small drone with a banner embossed with Albanian motifs flew over the pitch in Belgrade, Serbian fans invaded the pitch and also threw torches and lighters at the Albanian players as they left the field. Several Albanian players were struck by the hooligans who had invaded the pitch.
Fearing intrusion from outside the pitch, Albanian police have told locals living around the Elbasan Arena not to allow any unknown people in their homes while the match is on.
They have also been required to close the rooftops of their buildings and keep hold of their identification documents in case police ask for them.
Albanian political and sporting chiefs have been appealing to football fans to keep calm and not create incidents during the match.
Albania’s team has a good chance of qualifying for the 2016 UEFA European Championship, so the match with Serbia could be decisive for purely sporting reasons, too.
Prime Minister Edi Rama wrote on Facebook that while the match is important for this reason, it is equally important for Albanians to show they know how to respect a rival team.
“We have to prove that we are different, that we know to strongly support our team and at the same time respect our rivals on our football pitch,” he said, calling on fans to show respect also when the Serbian national anthem is played.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic at the weekend said he had made no final decision on whether to attend the game in Albania, although Rama has invited him to Elbasan.
Vucic told reporters he was not concerned about his safety but had other dilemmas.
“I have agreed with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to go there but now I can see he has invited [Kosovo Foreign Minister] Hashim Thaci and some other people too. I do not mind Thaci attending some political meetings, but this…” Vucic said.
Serbia does not recognise Kosovo’s independence and its officials try to avoid public meetings with Kosovo counterparts or with senior Kosovo officials. Thaci’s key role in Kosovo’s war of independence from Serbia makes meetings with him especially senstive.
Milivoj Mirkov, head of safety in the Football Association of Serbia, told BIRN that more police would be guarding the Serbian team than is usual.
“We did a risk analysis and proposed ways to guard the players in Albania. We did an analysis for the hotel, where they will be based, the route towards the stadium, and the game,” Mirkov said.
“However, risk analysis is something which needs to be constantly updated and we will do it before, during and after the game in Albania,” Mirkov added.