Rome: Serbia apologised to Italy on Wednesday after clashes between Serbian fans and Italian police that forced the cancellation of a Euro 2012 qualifying match, as football officials mulled possible sanctions.
Sixteen people were hospitalised including a police officer with first degree burns and 17 arrests were made following the violence, which began before the scrapped match and continued late into the night, officials said.
“I have just received a phone call from Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who presented a formal apology from the government,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters.
Jeremic promised “to intensify the search for those responsible and to capture the criminals who will be punished to set an example,” he said.
Serbia’s interior ministry however pointed out that Italy had not requested information about the hooligans beforehand and said Italian police could have worked better.
An Italian interior ministry official charged with football crowd control, Roberto Massucci, said there had been “flaws in the information system” between Italy and Serbia.
European football’s governing body UEFA said it had ordered a thorough disciplinary investigation into the “serious” crowd trouble.
Serbia face possible disqualification from Euro 2012 over the violence.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said he was afraid for the safety of Italian fans as events unfolded.
Prandelli was a Juventus player during the infamous Heysel Stadium tragedy in 1985 in which 39 people died when a wall collapsed as Juventus fans fled Liverpool hooligans who had scaled a fence to try to attack them.
“It was a night of torment. I thought again and again about how the violence of a few can hold a match and a whole city in its grip,” said Prandelli.
“When I saw that the Serbian ultras were trying to break through a screen separating them from the Italian fans I was really scared.
“I saw many people with children turning on their heels. When it’s like that anything can happen.
“It doesn’t take much for it to transform into a night of tragedy.”
The violence brought sharp condemnation from both Italy and Serbia.
“The Beast,” read a front-page headline in La Gazzetta dello Sport next to a picture of a man thought to be Ivan Bogdanov, the alleged ring-leader, dressed in a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones and doing a fascist salute.
Corriere della Sera said: “The English were excluded from European football for five years (following Heysel). It’s time that this happens to others.”
Serbia has long had serious problems with violent football fans, many of whom are linked to ultra-nationalist organisations. In Belgrade any match between local rivals Partizan and Red Star usually provokes incidents.
In September last year a French supporter of Toulouse who went to Belgrade to see his club play a Europa League match died after being attacked by fans of opposing side Partizan Belgrade. The trial against the 14 suspects is ongoing.
Football hooligans have also been named as participants in Sunday’s riots protesting Belgrade’s Gay Pride Parade when 6,000 rioters battled with police and caused one million euros (1.4 million dollars) in material damage.
The match was abandoned on Tuesday night just six minutes in, after Italy’s goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano appeared to be hit by a flare, which Serbian fans were throwing onto the pitch and at Italian supporters.
There were clashes later in the night when some fans broke out of a gated parking area and police in riot gear moved in to try to get them under control.
Television images showed chaotic scenes of clashes between Serbia supporters and police around the fans’ buses, as well as firework explosions.
Ultras earlier on Tuesday attacked a police car, urinated in the main public square and even attacked their own goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, throwing a flare at him when he was in the team bus outside their hotel.
Thugs also left graffiti inside the Marassi stadium glorifying former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander Ratko Mladic, both accused of genocide and war crimes against Bosnian Muslims.