The Football Association of Serbia has denied that fans of the team racially abused black players on the England Under-21 side during a Euro 2013 playoff match in Krusevac, Serbia, that was marred by a brawl.
In a statement, the Serbian FA stated that it "absolutely refuses and denies that there were any occurrences of racism before and during the match at the stadium in Krusevac. Making connection between the ... incident --- a fight between members of the two teams --- and racism has absolutely no [grounds].”
Danny Rose, an English player of black descent who claimed he had been insulted by Serbian fans throughout the game and was in the middle of the fracas, has demanded that Serbia be banned from the tournament. In retaliation, Serbian sporting officials blamed the end-of-game clash on Rose himself citing his "inappropriate, unsportsmanlike and vulgar" behavior.
"As I went off again, there was monkey chanting, but the monkey chanting started long before I got sent off," Rose complained, according to the British Football Association. "It started when we went out for the warm-up. They started the monkey chanting straight away. I asked the lads [teammates] if they could hear it, and they said they could hear it.
“In the first half, I went down to get the ball for a throw-in, and the fans started again with the monkey chants, but the first half was nowhere near as bad as the second half.
"In the second half, I had two stones hit me on the head when I went to get the ball for a throw-in," Rose added. "Every time I touched the ball, there was monkey chanting again.
“After 60 minutes, my mind wasn't really on the game after that," he also told Britain's Sky News. "I was just so angry, and it was just so hard to concentrate. I could have cost the lads the game, because I made a few mistakes through not concentrating. Then obviously we scored. After 90 minutes' worth of abuse, I just expressed my emotions as soon as we scored. Then the next thing I know, all the Serbia players have run over and were all surrounding me, pushing me, and a brawl broke out."
The British FA has taken Rose’s version of events as accurate and reported "a number of incidents of racism" to the Union of European Football Associations, or UEFA, the governing body of football across the continent.
Alex Horne, the general-secretary of the British FA, condemned the behavior of Serbian fans and demanded that UEFA rectify matters.
“We were shocked and appalled by the disgraceful events that occurred in Serbia last night,” he said in a statement.
“Our players and staff were subjected to racial abuse, violence, as well as missiles being thrown at them throughout the match. What occurred is inexcusable and not acceptable.
“We call on UEFA to take the strongest possible action against the Serbian FA, their supporters and anyone found guilty of being involved in the numerous instances of violence and abuse. It is also clear that we must defend Danny Rose, who was sent off due to the frustration of being a target of racial abuse.”
Noting that no football team should play in such a hostile environment, Horne suggested that UK clubs may not visit Serbia in the future.
Hugh Robertson, the UK sports minister, wrote a letter to UEFA President Michel Platini, alleging "extreme provocation and racism" from Serbian fans.
"Racism in any form is unacceptable and must be stamped out,” he said. “We would expect tough sanctions from UEFA on anyone found guilty of racist abuse."
Even Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has weighed in on the matter, saying he was “appalled” by the clashes in Serbia and calling on UEFA to institute "tough sanctions" on racism in the game.
Other British players and officials are also calling for Serbia’s banishment, citing previous incidents of racist behavior.
"Serbia should be banned, because it's a repeat offence," Clarke Carlisle, the chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, told the BBC. "Banning them for a start, from any tournament, would be progress, but I think if it's significant, if it's a couple of tournaments, then that would cause that nation to address the issue that has deprived them of international competition."
Luther Blissett, a former England player who is black, called for a ban of up to four years against Serbia.
"They [Serbs] obviously don't see that they're doing anything wrong by abusing people the way they do," he said.
Serbian football fans have a bad reputation across Europe -- some analysts attribute their violent and racist behavior to the residue of the civil wars that ensnared the Balkans in the 1990s. Football matches in Serbia have attracted large numbers of thugs, hooligans and ultranationalists seeking a forum to vent their anger and frustrations.
Three years ago, a fan of the Toulouse team from France named Brice Taton was murdered by Serbs during a match in Belgrade. (Taton was white, suggesting that xenophobia is also a factor in Serb violence.)
A Serbian fan named Bogdan told the OWNI.eu news service that football matches are a way for young people to make their presence felt.
“The matches permit us to be visible to politicians,” he said. “They are reminded that we are there, and, the next time they try to pull some [BS] move on Serbia, we will burn more than an embassy.” (Bogdan was referring to an incident in February 2008 when hundreds of young Serbs burned the U.S. Embassy down to the ground the day after Kosovo declared its independence.)
“Don’t believe the media -- we are a very popular here in Serbia," Bogdan added. "We are a political force, and our agenda is what every Serb dreams of. We avenge our country. Football is a way of making war.”
Bogdan, who is 28 and unemployed, said he has little else to do. The actual jobless rate in Serbia is believed to be as high as 30 percent.
“I am proud of my country, but it is an economic nightmare,” he said.
"Football makes me forget that I have no future,” another Serb named Emi lamented.
Franklin Foer, an American author who wrote a book called "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization," said that football is viewed as a microcosm of war, according to OWNI.eu.
“It’s a mirror that reflects all the tensions in society,” he said. “The most striking example is in Serbia.”
Football also releases pent-up feelings of extreme xenophobia and nationalism.
“After the war, [nationalists] invaded the [football] stadiums,” explained Rubin Zemon, a researcher at the Euro-Balkan Institute. “Thanks to the discourse that mixes Serbian pride and revenge, hardcore Serbian nationalists have attracted youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. These kids make up the majority of their support base.”