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Albanian Soccer Aims for Positive Political Message by Teaming With Serbia to Bid for Under-21 Euro

GENEVA (AP) — A tournament co-hosting bid by Albania and Serbia is an unlikely project in European soccer and politics.

The Balkan neighbors’ soccer federations have surprisingly teamed up to try to persuade UEFA to award them the 2027 men’s Under-21 European Championship in a vote expected in December.

It has been just under 10 years since the notorious drone game in Belgrade, and fresh memories of that have fueled opposition to the 2027 bid by some fans as well as the Albania captain from that evening.

A drone carrying an Albanian nationalist flag caused chaos when it flew above the stadium and down to field level as Serbia hosted Albania for a Euro 2016 qualifying game in October 2014.

Clashes between players that then brought Serbian fans on the field forced the game to be abandoned. The result was not decided until nine months later by a court in Switzerland.

Historic tensions had been heightened by the Balkans conflicts in the 1990s and especially since 2008 when majority ethnic Albanians declared independence in the former Serbian province of Kosovo. Serbia refuses to recognize that independence and considers Kosovo the cradle of its statehood and Christian Orthodox religion.

Into this state of play, Serbia and Albania — which both qualified for Euro 2024 next month in Germany — hope to stage one of UEFA’s biggest tournaments together.

“In reality it’s a 100% football project,” Albania soccer federation president Armand Duka told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “This is actually a very good political message that we can get across. The history between Serbia and Albania is well known.”

FILE – Albanian Football Federation President Armand Duka celebrates with journalists and other officials after being awarded victory over Serbia in the Euro qualifier by the top sports court, Tirana, Friday, July 10, 2015. A tournament co-hosting bid by Albania and Serbia is an unlikely project in European soccer and politics. The Balkan neighbors’ soccer federations have surprisingly teamed up to persuade UEFA to award them the men’s Under-21 European Championship. (AP Photo/Hektor Pustina, File)

There has been resistance. One national-team fan group daubed red paint across fences at the federation offices this month and attached images of historic conflicts with Serbia.

The “Red and Black Fans” group said Albania has enough neighbors so “why do we cross Kosovo to give help to Serbia?”

“We did have a few negative reactions from fans, mainly, and some interest groups but not from the Albania government,” Duka told The AP.

A joint bid for the 16-team tournament was not the original plan and Kosovo was not a viable option as it has just one UEFA-level stadium of only 14,000 seats. Albania and Serbia at first bid separately to UEFA in a contest that also includes Belgium and Turkey.

Duka acknowledged co-hosting gives Albania a better chance to win and means offering only four stadiums instead of the full tournament slate of eight.

The standout venue in Tirana is the new national stadium, 22,000-seat Arena Kombëtare. It opened in 2019 and staged the first Europa Conference League final two years ago.

“Maybe 10 years ago it was unthinkable that we would even have a chance to bid,” Duka said through a translator.

Albania also has more influence at UEFA. Duka was elected to the UEFA executive committee in 2019 and recently was promoted to be a vice president.

On the field, the Albania squad including several Kosovar Albanians now prepares for a second men’s Euro in eight years. It topped a qualifying group ahead of the Czech Republic and Poland.

The debut at Euro 2016 was helped by the final verdict in the drone case that lifted Albania in the qualifying group standings above third-place Denmark.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport judges blamed Serbian organizers for the Belgrade game not being completed and overturned UEFA’s ruling of a default win for Serbia. The 3-0 win was awarded to Albania.

Albania’s captain in 2016, Lorik Cana — who protected the drone-flown flag from Serbia players — is not a fan of the co-hosting plan.

“It is not the proper step, for me,” said Cana, who was born in Kosovo. “Without overcoming some processes of normalizing relations, it would be difficult to have joint holding of events despite the goodwill from the federation.”

Weeks after the drone game, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s visit to Belgrade was the first by its head of government to Serbia in 68 years.

Both countries have applied for European Union membership and started negotiations with Brussels. Albania is a NATO member while Serbia is still on the waiting list.

“I don’t expect any negative reaction from the Kosovo government,” Duka said. “The wound is still a bit fresh, it is just 25 years. So I understand a certain reaction.

“But we have to go beyond this, to look forward and have a better future.”

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By GRAHAM DUNBAR and LLAZAR SEMINI Associated Press

Semini reported from Tirana, Albania

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