I’ll always remember where I was on October 14 2014. Well, October 15 2014.
I’d woken up in Sydney, Australia, and checked my phone. There were dozens of messages about a football match in Serbia.
It was a 2016 European Championship qualification match between Serbia and Albania, at the FK Partizan Stadium in Belgrade.
Ever since the draw was made it was clear that tensions would be high for the game. The two countries shared a fraught history, most recently over the 1999 Kosovo War. Serbs view Kosovo as an inviolable part of of their state; the ethnic Albanian Kosovars that make up over 90 percent of the territory want independence.
The Albania national team had never qualified for a major tournament before, and hadn’t played in Belgrade for over 50 years. The match, as expected, was played in a febrile atmosphere.
And then, in the 42nd minute, the drone appeared, carrying a banner covered in Albanian nationalist messages.
What followed made headlines around the world. There was fighting on the pitch, fighting off the pitch and, finally, the match was abandoned. It created a political meltdown between the two countries.
But the question was: Who flew the drone? At first the brother of the Albanian PM was blamed. The Albania players even had their bags searched.
In fact, the pilot was a 33 year old crane operator called Ismail Morina who had been holed up in the cupola of a near by cathedral and was making his escape to Kosovo.
I managed to track Ismail down and spent a few days with him and the Albanian national football team’s supporters group the Red and Black, first in Kosovo and then in Albania. I wrote this feature about him for the New York Times ahead of the rematch against Serbia in the Albanian city of Elbasan.
But that is when it started getting weird. After I filed the story a crew from YouTube channel Copa90 arrived to do a story about the match. We drove to the city of Durres to meet Ismail for another interview. He was welcoming and open, showing us the death threats he got regularly on Facebook. He also showed us his gun, which he kept for protection.
He dropped us off at our apartment. The next morning I got a message from my girlfriend. Ismail had been arrested. The police had searched him a few minutes after we had seen him last and found his guns, as well as a host of tickets for the game (the Albanian FA had told me that UEFA instructed them to ban him for the game, despite him being a national hero).
For the next three days his arrest was the main story on Albanian news. But every story (falsely) claimed that he had been arrested because of the NY Times interview, even though it had been published after his arrest. Cue frantic phone calls from angry Albanian fans demanding to know why I had written about Ismail’s gun! In the end, I had to go on Albanian TV to clear things up before it emerged that the police had been following him for weeks, fearing another stunt if Serbian PM Vucic turned up to the game (in the end he didn’t).
Albania lost the game against Serbia 2-0, but beat Armenia three days later to secure their first ever qualification to a major tournament. But Ismail wasn’t there. He’s is still in jail. It was a crazy few days. You can hear more about it in this BBC World Service World Football report.
Thousands took to the streets or Tirana, Paris and Pristina to celebrate Albania’s qualification.
The Red and Black are campaigning to have Ismail released. Albania were awarded the three points over the drone match in Belgrade. For many he remains a national hero who believe he played an important role in Albania’s qualification. After all, if that drone had not flown, would Albania be preparing for a Euro 2016 play off against Sweden, instead of preparing for France?