Last night, Northern Ireland’s 2-1 loss to Serbia was played at Belgrade’s Stadion FK Crvena Zvezda in front of fewer than 300 fans.. While the Florida Marlins’ marketing department consults the Serbian F.A. for advice on how to sell that many tickets, When Saturday Comes’ Richard Mills reminds us that due to sanctions imposed by UEFA, playing to a near-vacant venue is nothing new for the hosts.
This latest stadium closure is being imposed by following an evening of debauchery in Genoa, instigated by Serbian hooligans, which led to the abandonment of Serbia’s qualifier against Italy. Talking about tonight’s game, Birmingham’s Nikola Žigi? commented: “It will be difficult in front of empty terraces. I have twice had the opportunity to play in an empty Marakana.” (Once for Red Star and once for the national team.)
However, unlike previous occasions the stadium will not be completely deserted. Gary McAllister, press officer for the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs (AONISC), says that 265 away supporters have been granted permission to attend the match. McAllister notes that the security operation surrounding the attendance of these Irish fans is highly secretive and has involved the two respective football associations, the AONISC, the Northern Ireland police, the British Embassy in Belgrade and UEFA.
This is unsurprising considering that in February UEFA’s Michel Platini held a personal meeting with Serbian president Boris Tadi?, during which he warned that “there is a serious risk of suspension for the national and club teams” from all UEFA competitions unless there are clear signs that concrete measures are being taken to tackle football hooliganism in the country.
If last week’s Belgrade derby is anything to go by this zero-tolerance approach is being taken seriously. For that match over 3,000 policemen patrolled the stadium and its immediate surroundings, and even though Serbian supporters will be absent for this evening’s game, there is no reason to expect that security measures will be any more relaxed outside the ground.