On Tuesday, a soccer match between Albania and Serbia went horribly wrong when a drone carrying a provocative Albanian nationalist flag flew over Partizan Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia. Players from both sides began scuffling, Serbian fans charged the pitch, one threw a chair at the Albanian player trying to take the flag away, and after a few minutes of pandemonium, the Albanian players ran off the pitch, ducking from projectiles to the sound of “kill the Albanians!”
The match, a qualifier for the Euro 2016 tournament, was called off, and in its aftermath UEFA, the governing body of European football, has endured a maelstrom of criticism. The general sentiment is that they should have seen this coming—that because of Albania and Serbia’s fractious history, the organization should have engineered the matchups so that these two nations never had to meet. “It’s better for UEFA to err on the side of safety if there are any real security concerns at all,” writes Marissa Payne at The Washington Post, while Kirsten Schlewitz at SB Nation went even further: “Rather than consider a heated situation well known to most citizens in the world, the organization chose to bury its head in the sand.”
UEFA already manipulates matchups to prevent nations with troubled relationships from facing each other in competition. But that doesn’t mean they should. Russian and Ukrainian club teams were separated in the Champions League tournament this year, Gibraltar was first drawn in Spain’s group for Euro 2016 qualifying but was moved to another, and Armenia and Azerbaijan are kept apart in competition. But these requests are evaluated based on three criteria: whether the two countries have normal diplomatic relations, if there is an ongoing armed conflict between the two, or if one country made a request to be kept apart from another. Albania and Serbia did not fulfill those criteria. In fact, Albanian President Edi Rama is scheduled to visit Belgrade in just a few days, the first leader in his position to do so in 68 years.
Moreover, UEFA is a sporting organization, not the United Nations. The organization did take precautions with the match, banning certain hoodlums from the match and increasing the police presence. No one could have foreseen what ended up happening. If UEFA did give into the current pressure to manipulate matchups, they would be stepping into a political minefield. It would simply be impossible—and ultimately futile—to take into account every fractious relationship in the world. There’s no telling when violence would erupt anyway. Plenty of potentially contentious matches have played out peacefully, including the World Cup 2014 qualifier between Serbia and Croatia, two countries that fought a vicious civil war from 1991 to 1995.
What happened in Belgrade should not happen again, but it probably will somewhere. That doesn't mean organizations should start manipulating matchups. Other options have been shown to work: increasing security, putting pressure on national organizations to keep their supporters in line, and in extreme cases, playing the match on a neutral ground.
What's more, manipulating matchups goes against the very essence of international competition, which is to rise above the political fray and bring countries together through a common passion, whatever their backgrounds. If UEFA were to give in, it would mark a victory for hooliganism and violence, allowing fear to cast a specter over the game. Part of the reason sports appeal to so many people is its ability to act as a proxy for greater world events. Think of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. And many of the greatest sporting rivalries in history have been fueled by political tension: Germany vs. France, England vs. Argentina, Russia vs. the United States. If UEFA—or on an even grander scale, FIFA—were to keep national teams apart based on politics, they would be undermining a fundamental aspect of the game’s appeal.