A UEFA championship qualifier between Romania and Kosovo was marred by controversy and protests on Tuesday evening in Bucharest. The match was delayed for 30 minutes after Romanian fans displayed a banner that read “Kosovo is Serbia” and chanted the name of the neighboring country. Romania is one of the five EU member states that does not recognize Kosovo, a breakaway province of Serbia that declared independence in 2008. Despite this, UEFA admitted Kosovo as a member in 2016.
The tensions between the two sides were evident from the beginning of the match. As the Kosovo anthem played, Romanian ‘ultras’ chanted “Serbia! Serbia!” The organizers had to turn up the volume in an attempt to drown out the chants. Videos were shared on social media showing Kosovo fans booing the Romanian anthem during the previous match in Pristina.
Romanian fans were seen holding banners proclaiming “Kosovo is Serbia” in Serbian and “Bessarabia is Romania” in Romanian. Bessarabia is a region that is claimed by both Romania and present-day Moldova. The organizers repeatedly reminded the crowd to refrain from chanting and displaying provocative messages, as UEFA does not tolerate revisionist actions.
Despite the warnings, the tensions escalated to the point where Kosovo players walked off the pitch in protest. The game was paused for more than 30 minutes before eventually resuming. In the end, Romania won the match with a final score of 2-0.
The incident sparked outrage among ethnic Albanian social media users who accused Romanian fans of racist chants. They demanded that the game be called off and that Kosovo be awarded a victory by default. The Kosovo Football Association described the banner as “hateful.” It is worth mentioning that Kosovo has not won any of its games in the qualifier group, which includes Andorra, Belarus, Israel, Romania, and Switzerland.
This is not the first time that football matches involving Balkan countries have been marred by political tensions. In 2014, during a UEFA qualifier between Albania and Serbia, an Albanian fan flew a drone into the stadium in Belgrade, carrying a nationalist banner. A fight broke out on the pitch when a Serbian player tore off the banner, leading to the game being called off. Ultimately, Serbia was initially awarded a default victory but later had the three points deducted by UEFA.
The situation in Kosovo is complex. NATO troops took control of the province in 1999 after a 78-day air war against Serbia, despite lacking UN authorization. The UN Security Council Resolution 1244 recognizes Kosovo as sovereign Serbian territory. However, Russia, China, India, and about half the UN members have joined Serbia in not recognizing the government in Pristina. These political tensions often spill over into sports events, reflecting the deep-rooted divisions in the region.
The incident in Bucharest serves as a reminder of the ongoing tensions and unresolved conflicts in the Balkans. It highlights the challenges that arise when sports and politics intersect and how football matches can become platforms for political expression and nationalist sentiments. As UEFA strives to uphold its values and principles, it faces the difficult task of maintaining fair and peaceful sporting events in a region marked by historical and political divisions.