Trouble overshadows the curtain raiser

Greece’s Under-21 national soccer team kept its slim hopes alive for a berth at next year’s finals with a 2-0 win over Albania in Athens yesterday. The match, however, was overshadowed by tension in the stands when, a little before the game’s half-time break, a group of young Greek ultra-nationalists took down the Albanian flag at the Nea Smyrni stadium. Both flag and mast were damaged. Stadium officials needed to overcome the group’s resistance to repair the mast and re-raise the flag following an order from the match’s official supervisor representing UEFA, soccer’s governing body for Europe. The Albanian team, during the half-time interval, had declared that it would not continue the game without a new flag in place of the damaged one. The second half’s commencement was delayed by 10 minutes. A 19-year-old Greek fan was arrested. According to UEFA regulations, Greece’s Under-21 team would have risked losing the three points gained by the victory had the flag not been replaced. The game, attended by some 3,000 Greek fans in the Nea Smyrni stadium, which holds slightly over 10,000, was a worrisome prelude to tonight’s encounter between the senior teams of the two rival nations which will meet in a sold-out World Cup qualifier at the much larger Karaiskaki Stadium. As a security measure, Albanian fans will not attend, but widespread concern exists over the threat of violence breaking out in the streets across the country between locals and Albanian immigrants. Concerned representatives from both camps, ranging from politicians to players, have urged calm. On Monday, an attempt to appease fans was made by describing tonight’s clash as «a mere soccer game.» Serious trouble had erupted when the two senior teams met last September in the opening round of World Cup qualifiers. Violent clashes between Greeks and Albanian immigrants were reported in various parts of Greece following the national team’s 2-1 loss in Tirana. One Albanian was killed. Incidents were also reported from Albania, where ethnic Greek minorities are based. Greek journalists had also reported that the Greek team’s delegation, including journalists, had arrived in a very hostile environment in Tirana. Returning to yesterday’s Under-21 game, the Greek team, pursuing victory to keep its slender qualification hopes alive following a draw against Georgia just days ago, did not impress. But the home team got the result it needed with two goals in the 19th and 75th minutes. Albania came close to equalizing 10 minutes ahead of Greece’s second goal. Greece is placed third in its group with 11 points from seven games. Denmark, with a game less, leads with 16 points. Turkey is second with 14 points. The European Under-21 Championship will be held in Germany next year between May 25 and June 6. Defending champion Italy has won the competition, held every two years, on five of the past seven occasions.

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