Nick Ames was the only British journalist to travel to Belgrade on 14th October, 2014 to cover the European Championship qualifying match between Serbia and Albania. On a night when tensions were already high, the air thick with freshly evoked memories of past conflicts, he witnessed an outpouring of violence that would shake the foundations of world football. Nick would spend three straight days responding to countless requests from the press back home, barely pausing for breath as he frantically tried to make sense of the violence and deliver a verdict in black-and-white.
Three months on, The Green Soccer Journal asked Nick for a personal reflection on events in Partizan Stadium on that cold Tuesday evening.
What did you think at first? It’s a strange question to be asking yourself nearly three months on, especially as memory plays tricks on the sharpest of us. But you strain to remember, because at the time you just had to guess, really, such was the scattered rush to comprehension caused by the scenes that were unfolding, so rapidly and so unstoppably, right below you. What was the very first thing you thought when the flag first lowered into view?
I’ve seen this before. That was exactly it. For a moment, the briefest moment, that was the thought. I’ve seen this before. This is something that happens. That was all buried quickly enough in the next three minutes or so, as Serbia and Albania – or disparate elements thereof – combined to turn the pre-match fears into something real, something far more shocking than a waymarker deep in the memory. But it was true. This was not something new.
You realise that your mind had, in an instant, clung onto a sight seen on a sodden March afternoon in Mitrovica – an unhappy, divided, discomfiting city in Kosovo whose minority Serbian population lives across the river from its more settled Albanian counterparts in a pall of gloom that, even in this part of the world, unsettles you to the stomach. There, after a difficult day, a carnival atmosphere had developed in the local stadium as Kosovo played Haiti in the disputed territory’s first international game. In the rain and the mud of a scruffy encounter, something else had come down from the sky: an Albanian flag, directed by a hovering paraglider, had swooped down towards the pitch, then up again, close enough to the action that a becalmed crowd was stirred into raptures. There would be no trouble – everyone present was ethnically Albanian. But the gesture, along with the very fact that the game was being played the most contentious of settings, was as provocative as it was defiant. So was the burning of a Serbian flag on the Albanian side of the river later that evening.
Only a handful of those inside Partizan Stadium on October 14th could have seen these things too. And the moment of recognition will have passed equally quickly for them as well, because the time and place for context were later. You could not think cogently as the flag, this time piloted into a bowl full of ethnic Serbs, landed in the hands of Serbia’s Stefan Mitrovic, before Albania’s players responded and people – players, staff, officials and, for want of a better word, supporters – swarmed in front of you like pixels. Focus on one localised outbreak of war and you risked missing another, or under-appreciating the whole. Later, you would spend minutes on end poring over a colleague’s photographs to make sure that your work matched in factual accuracy the sense of immediacy that you wanted to convey. You would learn the meaning of the word ‘AUTOCHTONOUS’, displayed on the flag and, with each reading, looking that bit more alien and sinister. To work in conditions such as these was to operate at a bewildering disjoin between speeds: full pelt and yet, at the same time, freezing every frame.
You found yourself relying upon a skeleton of impressions that you can, at least, be sure of. The way your throat caught slightly as Mitrovic ushered the flag down, knowing – just knowing – that this could not possibly be OK. Then, probably a full two minutes later, the first and only genuine flush of fear you felt – the awful fear that the worst was still to come – as Albania’s players fled down the tunnel directly below, showered by missiles hurled by people you could almost reach out and haul back, kicked in the face by at least one balaclava-clad assailant.
Just as quickly came the calm and the waiting. For a hopeful half-hour you wondered if, in a still-full arena whose eerie near-silence now made what went before seem all the less credible, some kind of footballing solution could be reached. Had the crowd stunned itself? Did it know things had gone too far? You thought back to your frenetic, borderline-dangerous entry to the stadium, hundreds crushing between two metal railings and filtering slowly, slowly, breathily between a thin line of ineffectual stewards, and you remembered their chants: “Kill, kill the Albanians!”; “Fuck, fuck Albania!” You remembered that the air had been thick with tension and thin on any kind of football anticipation; you recalled the conversation with a colleague, who told you the attendance would have been half the 25,000 present had Albania, no sporting draw in themselves, not been the opposition. You surveyed the scene again, understood the teams would not be re-emerging and supposed that this was a picture of defiance rather than of soul-searching.
An hour or more later, you had filed your first two reports, run down your phone battery and decided to carry on your work far from the stadium. It had become a struggle to make eye contact with anyone in the media centre. Shame? Incomprehension? Industry? Probably all three, but it was no atmosphere for collaboration. As you had departed, farewells with local colleagues had been cursory; faces had barely been raised above the direction of the ground. You’d climbed into a taxi and sped through a dark, quiet, impassive city that, it seemed, had nothing more to say.
It would all be said later though. The denials, the accusations, the counter-claims, the wearying litany of fingers pointed. You could not ignore it but, after a few days, the bent truths and evaded questions had become wearying. An interview you gave for Albanian radio had been twisted and transcribed incorrectly, reproduced in a national newspaper. On your own micro-level, there had been lessons to learn here even if those of greater relevance refused to accept their own.
I’ve seen this before. All those days later, you feel a faint sense of frustration when you look back. And much of it comes when you remember that flickering thought, that recollection from back in Mitrovica. If every act of history is loaded with what went before then you, and maybe a few more of those who had converged upon Belgrade to cover we’re-not-exactly-sure-what, might have seen the biggest signifier of all fly right past your face. And there was absolutely nothing that you could have done with it.