GENOA, Italy (AP) — Police have detained 17 people including the alleged ringleader of a riot at a soccer match between Serbia and Italy, and UEFA warned that sanctions may include disqualification from the European Championship or exclusion from future competitions.
The match in Genoa was called off after seven minutes when Serbia fans threw flares and fireworks onto the field, burned a flag and broke barriers. Violent clashes continued through the night, and sixteen people, including two policemen, were injured.
UEFA has opened an investigation into the events and its disciplinary panel will hear the case on Oct. 28.
Police found the alleged instigator of the riot in the trunk of a bus that was due to take the Serbian fans home from the European Championships qualifier. While his face was covered by a mask during the violence, police identified him by his tattooed arms and found explosives material with him.
Of the 17 people detained, 16 are Serbian fans and one is Italian, Genoa police official Sebastiano Salvo told The Associated Press (News - Alert).
Salvo identified the ringleader as 30–year–old Ivan Bogdanov, who climbed onto a barrier separating fans from the field, used a wire cutter to slice apart a mesh fence and launched fireworks onto the field.
Bogdanov didn't say anything when he was arrested and is being held in a Genoa jail under accusations of causing violence and damage and resisting arrest, Salvo said, adding that 600 pieces of fireworks and explosives were found in four bags inside the bus holding Serbian fans.
Serbian media reported that Bogdanov has a criminal record, including drug possession. He leads one of the most notorious Red Star Belgrade fan groups.
Serbian police said that they will "take measures" against the rioters, adding that they are aware of their identities and that they will be "prosecuted" in Serbia.
Tomislav Karadzic, head of Serbia's soccer association, said on his return to Belgrade that he believes the rioting was premeditated and apparently organized from Belgrade. He said that "these guys did not go there by themselves."
The association said it will meet to discuss the incident as it braces for tough sanctions that are likely to follow.
UEFA will examine reports from its delegate in Genoa, David Petriashvili of Georgia, and match referee Craig Thomson (News - Alert) from Scotland before issuing a verdict.
In 2007, the control and disciplinary body awarded Sweden a 3–0 win over Denmark in a similar case. Two years earlier, Inter Milan was ordered to play four games without fans and its rival AC Milan awarded a 3–0 win after a derby game between the two teams was suspended when a flare thrown from the stands hit Milan goalkeeper Dida.
"We firmly condemn these acts of violence, carried out by a group of violent people who are not (football) fans," said Maurizio Massari, a spokesman for Italy's foreign ministry, adding that a condemnation from the Serbian ambassador in Rome earlier Wednesday was "appreciated."
Also Wednesday, Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini addressed the issue with his Serbian counterpart.
Serbia's sports ministry official Slavisa Zlatanovic said that losing Euro qualifier points "won't be the worst that could happen ... We could also be expelled from the competition, or ordered to play our games at empty stadiums."
Serbian officials said the fans belong to the same far–right groups that clashed with police in Belgrade last Sunday while trying to disrupt a gay pride parade, leaving more than 150 people injured and most of the downtown destroyed.
Serbia's Constitutional Court is scheduled Wednesday to start discussions on a public prosecutor's demand to ban 14 fan groups mostly belonging to Red Star and Partizan Belgrade clubs.
Serbia fans also clashed with police before Tuesday's match and delayed the start of the game for 45 minutes. When the match finally began, more flares and fireworks were thrown onto the field and Scottish referee Craig Thomson stopped the match at 0–0.
At one point during the delay, Italy asked the Serbia team to walk over and try to calm their fans down. The Serbia players did so by applauding in an apparent ironic manner and held three fingers aloft in the traditional Serb victory sign.
"I don't know what gestures they made but they were clearly worried," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "The Serb players were under siege. The have homes and families and will have to return and they're afraid. ... Football shouldn't fear these ultra fans, prevention is the best response."
Serbia has faced increased criticism from fans after losing 3–1 at home to Estonia on Friday. That match marked the debut of new coach Vladimir Petrovic, who was called in when Radomir Antic was fired following a 1–1 draw at home with Slovenia last month, which only added to a crisis that began with a disappointing first–round exit from the World Cup.
The Italian soccer federation said it was evaluating ticket refunds for Italian fans who attended the match.
Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.