A rainy night on the shores of the Baltic was an unlikely place for Balkan political tensions to flare up. In the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Switzerland met Serbia in an important game where taking three points were vital in the battle to progress from the group stage at the World Cup. But there was another subplot at play that night, another battle that was being fought in a conflict that has been raging for decades.
Two unlikely foes
Switzerland has not traditionally been the focus of overt political controversial in modern European history. In fact, it is one of the few nations in the world that is staunchly neutral and refuses to take an active part in conflict. Funny then that two of their sons, one born in Basel and one adopted at an early age, would be the focus of escalating tensions for their choice of celebration.
On that night in Kaliningrad, the Swiss went down early, conceding only in the fifth minute to an Aleksandar Mitrovic header. What followed was a tense, heated match of attrition between two unlikely foes. The second half gave us a fantastic game, and an even better comeback.
On the 51st minute a Switzerland attack was met by less than convincing Serbian defending. Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka latched on to a loose ball on the edge of the box, sending it flying into the corner of the Serbian net, the natural curl of the ball left the keeper with no chance. He ran out towards the crowd, his hands splayed across his chest in a smooth fluid motion.
Fast forward almost forty exhaustive minutes later, the rain still pouring down hard. It looked like the two teams were locked together, that nothing could separate them. They’d have to be satisfied with a point apiece, nothing solved, no line drawn in the sand. Then in the dying minutes of the match the ball broke loose and the Swiss went onto the counter attack. Their star player Xherdan Shaqiri collected the ball and made a brace, fighting against the Serbian defence every step of the way. He held fast and promptly slotted the ball in the net. The Swiss had won it. Shaqiri ran out towards the crowd, his hands splayed across his chest in a familiar manner.
A political controversy
Funnily enough all three goalscorers in that match, Mitrovic, Xhaka and Shaqiri, were all at the centre of the controversy that was unfolding. It was a political controversy. Tensions flared before the match due to Shaqiri openly displaying his boots on social media, the left heel sporting a Swiss flag honouring his adopted nation. The right boot revealed a Kosovo flag, a nod to his homeland that he and his parents left in the early 1990s when he was only a baby. Both he and Xhaka when scoring made the same identical celebration, both, it has been said, sporting an Albanian eagle as a note of solidarity to ethnically Albanian Kosovo. Xhaka himself was born in Basel, Switzerland, but to Kosovar parents. In fact, his father was imprisoned for three years back in the 1980s in Yugoslavia for showing opposition to the government in Belgrade.
Well, what’s the problem then? Simply, Serbia don’t recognise Kosovo as an independent nation, while many countries indeed do. The United States, for example, recognises Kosovo’s independence from its former overlords Serbia, once a part of Yugoslavia. Similarly, the United Kingdom has recognised the Kosovar state since they self-declared independence from Serbia in 2008. In contrast, the Russian government who is hosting the World Cup doesn’t.
This shouldn’t be a problem though. After all, it is only football, and FIFA itself recognises the importance of remaining apolitical. It comes as disturbing then that immediately after the match, FIFA threatened to ban both Xhaka and Shaqiri for two matches alleging that their celebration represented a political gesture. This would’ve severely affected Switzerland’s chances of advancing through the competition when they face Sweden in the round of 16.
A hypocritical move from FIFA
Leaving the acute machinations of Balkan politics aside, how is it acceptable for an international football confederation to weigh in on a gesture or an action contained in a footballer’s celebration? Eventually FIFA didn’t decide to ban the two players, which has come as relief to Switzerland. Both Shaqiri and Xhaka have each been fined just over £7,000 each, FIFA have claimed for unsporting behaviour. The fact that FIFA chose to wade in and say that these celebrations constitute unsporting behaviour is not only a hypocritical move and inherent political itself, but it is also ill conceived and naïve.
FIFA should have stayed out of this. It is one thing to fine the Serbian FA £41,000 because of the politically motivated slogans on banners which were written down for everyone to see, and displayed by Serbian fans at the very match in question. But fanning your arms out across your chest can in no way be considered a political gesture. FIFA themselves have covered their backs by not banning the players, where they would have to admit and justify exactly why they think this celebration is a political gesture. Instead they’ve been cleverer and merely fined them for unsporting behaviour. What exactly constitutes unsporting behaviour has not been, and won’t be clarified.
The double-headed eagle is ubiquitous
The double-headed eagle occurs in heraldry across Eastern Europe. It appears on the Albanian national flag and in the coats of arms of no less than Russia, Montenegro and even Serbia. All of this is actually a moot point as Xhaka and Shaqiri have astutely remained quiet about their celebration. They’ve not said what their celebrations represent, so judging it to be a political gesture or to be unsporting behaviour is to assign it something that the players themselves have remained been silent on.
There has been no inquest from FIFA, there has been no justification given for the fines they received, and there won’t be. If FIFA have to explain themselves, everyone will see the hypocrisy in their actions. FIFA have fined the Serbian FA and they want to make their stance look equal and neutral by penalising the Swiss side in some manner. Unfortunately, FIFA wading in and assigning more meaning than has been qualified by the players themselves will seek to do nothing more than further politicise, incite and legitimise two factions that will look for a justification for their cause in anything. Instead we should have been talking about a fantastic game of football.