An Issue of Identity: The story behind the Swiss goal celebrations

AN enthralling FIFA World Cup match between Serbia and Switzerland on Friday ended with a last minute Xherdan Shaqiri goal to win the game for the Swiss. As you can imagine, for a team of modest ability and slim hopes of World Cup success, Shaqiri’s goal sparked wild scenes among fans and players. As well as the usual pints of watery lager flying through the air we also saw whole wheels of cheese being flung around the celebratory Swiss crowd in Kaliningrad. 40 minutes earlier, Arsenal player, Granit Xhaka, thundered in the equaliser from the edge of the area. A marvellous spectacle, I’m sure you’ll agree. But there has been much made of the respective player’s goal celebrations, not to mention a cameo celebration from captain, Stephan Lichtsteiner. We have all seen the ‘eagle’ gestures made by all three players and there has been much talk about why so much controversy has been caused. I have an interest in Eastern European football and as such an interest in Eastern European politics, so it made sense to warm up the laptop and do a little digging to give a some more insight into what is ultimately a dark and bloody topic.

Both Xhaka and Shaqhiri are of Albanian Kosovan descent, as is 92% of the Kosovan population, and they are both children of refugees made homeless by the Kosovan war in 1999, their story of fleeing their war-torn homeland can be echoed by hundreds of thousands of Albanian Kosovans. The double-headed black eagle, simulated by the hand gesture celebrations of the three players, is one of the national symbols of Albania and appears on their national flag. In Albanian the word ‘Albanian’ translates as ‘Shqiptar’, which is identical to ‘Shqiponje’ (‘eagle’ in English). Kosovans believe the gesture is derived from the similarity of the words and is used to highlight their national identity.

To fully understand why the Swiss players made the gesture in a game against Serbia one has to be aware of the hardships people of Kosovan Albanian descent, and many thousands of Kosovans in general, have faced since the 1970s. Kosovo has always, at least geographically, been part of Serbia; a small territory in the south west of the country, bordering Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro and it became an autonomous province in 1974.

Future President, Slobodan Milošević, amid rising ethnic tensions in Serbia, stated in 1987 that Serbs should be protected against Albanian mistreatment and unsurprisingly was elected in 1989 against a backdrop of nationalist hubris. He almost immediately rescinded Kosovo’s autonomy, meaning it was now completely under Serbian rule. Milošević’s government also began a movement to arrest and in some cases, murder, those opposed to Serbian jurisdiction, in particular targeting those of Albanian ancestry. In the case of Granit Xhaka, his father was a political prisoner for many years and was reportedly tortured during his time in prison.

By the mid-1990s the KLA (Kosovan Liberation Army) was born out of the rising political tensions and discrimination of Kosovans. They fought a guerrilla war against Serbian government and police and sought to cement the identity of the Kosovan nation. By 1997 the uprising had peaked and sparked the start of the Kosovan war in February 1998. The cleansing of Kosovan Albanians from the region intensified as the Serbian army began a campaign against KLA supporters and caused an estimated 1.5 million refugees to flee Kosovo before the end of the war. Shaqiri’s family was part of the mass displacement from Kosovo and they settled in Basel, Switzerland. Neighbouring countries such as Austria, Germany, Turkey and Romania also reported a surge of refugees during this time.

In March 1999 NATO demanded withdrawal of Serbian troops, they met with opposition to their demands and they began airstrikes the same month causing the deaths of hundreds of soldiers, not to mention many civilians. Serbia withdrew under the Kumanovo treaty in June 1999, several leaders on both sides have since been charged with war crimes and it has long since debated whether acts of genocide were committed.

Sadly, the reports from NATO suggest genocide did occur. Their findings make for very grim reading and I shall stay away from the more heinous ones, they’re out there if you wish to read them. NATO reported the Serbian army imposed a sickening ethnic cleansing consisting of execution, rape, torture and arson. Around 10,000 people have been reported to have been killed as a result and over 2000 bodies have been exhumed from mass graves since the war ended.

Of course there were casualties on both sides, the KLA was extremely well organised and had assistance from neighbouring Albania. Around 2000 Serbs will killed during the conflict, with many Serbian leaders accusing the KLA and their supporters of persecution against ethnic Serbs in the area.

In 2008 Kosovo declared independence, but this wasn’t, and crucially, still isn’t, recognised by Serbia. That fact ties in with the events in Russia last Friday. Before and during the game many Russians sided with their Serbian counterparts and booed the Swiss team’s Balkan descendants, Velon Behrami included, while singing anti-Kosovan chants and proclaiming Serbia and Russia to be ‘brothers’. It is little wonder, when under such provocation, that the Swiss trio celebrated in this way.

The gesture is little more than a show of identity, of heritage. We will never find out if the players meant to provoke and inflame tensions (although in the case of Lichtsteiner, who has no connection with Kosovo and is prone to a little shit-stirring, it is hard to see it any other way). However, the actions of the players will only serve to promote Serbian nationalism, while being regarded as heroes in Kosovo. The exploits of Serbian fans during the game is a normal practice and widely accepted in their country; a country which is imbued with a culture of right-wing nationalism.

The apparent injustices of the game itself caused Serbia’s coach, Mladen Krstajić, to remark Serbia had been the victims of “selective justice, again” his comments were made in reference to the war crimes trials after the Kosovan war, where he felt Serbia military leaders were unfairly tried by the United Nations. He also made another war crime reference towards the VAR officials when stating they should stand trial like the paramilitary leaders of the Yugoslav and Kosovan conflicts did at The Hague.

These comments are not only bizarre and extremely insensitive, they are consistent with the almost paranoid and martyr-like persona of many Serbians. He went on to add that Shaqiri, who displays the flag of Switzerland on one boot and the flag of Kosovo on the other, had “the flag of a non-existent nation on one boot” and expected FIFA to “sanction the player and his federation”. Their siege mentality was further compounded by Serbian Football Assocation President, Savo Milosevic’s comment “because we are Serbia, no one cares” this in relation to the penalty which wasn’t given by the referee or VAR.

In regards to the gestures made by Lichtsteiner, Shaqiri and Xhaka, the head of the Serbian Football Association, Slavisa Kokeza, referred to them as “scandalous and shameful”. The question has to be, why? Why are Serbia so insulted? The gesture doesn’t reference war and the slaughter of innocent people and it isn’t discriminatory or derogatory against Serbia or its people.

Given this, Serbia can hardly claim to be the victims in this issue. Their fans have been pictured, not only at the Swiss game, but at the Costa Rica game earlier in the tournament, wearing t shirts and hoodies displaying the image of Ratko Mladić; a convicted Serbian war criminal from the Croatian and Bosnian wars of the early 1990s. Sadly, these garments are considered to be acceptable items of clothing at Serbian football matches in their domestic league. While at best this can be put down to a horde of an overly patriotic minority of supporters, the recent footage of Serbian fans on their way to Russia, filmed in Vienna in June, shouting fascist slogans and singing songs referencing the war crimes in Srebrenica*, is a particularly repugnant stain on their fan’s reputation.

*During the Bosnian war the Srebrenica massacre saw 8000 Bosnian Muslims murdered by the Bosnian Serb military.

These incidents coupled with the prominent display by Aleksandr Kolorov of the three-fingered salute after Serbia’s victory over Costa Rica, underlines a fierce nationalism in Serbian culture. The gesture, where one extends their thumb, index and middle fingers, is supposed to represent the holy trinity and is used as a gesture of celebration and honour. Origins stem from the 19th century, but Serbian nationalists more recently used it during the years following Milosevic’s 1987 speech. Soldiers also used the symbol during ‘victory’ in the Yugoslav wars and for many Kosovans it is a symbol of slaughter and destruction akin to the Nazi salute.

The three-fingers symbol has since been displayed by countless Serbians, especially by victorious sports men and women and the military meaning has been diluted somewhat. Despite this it can be argued that Kolarov was using this as a political statement, but that fact is merely irrelevant in the eyes of Kosovans. The pertinent issues for them are the comments and protests by the Serbian management after the game; given the recent incidents of offence caused by Serbian players and fans the hypocrisy is frankly astounding.

On Saturday FIFA opened up disciplinary proceedings against the Swiss trio and in a statement they claimed they had transgressed the rule of ‘provoking the general public’. Nothing political was mentioned and it is an extremely flimsy and half-hearted interpretation of the rules from football’s governing body. The double standards at play here are extremely disturbing. While Kolarov’s use of the three fingered gesture and the public displays of the faces of war criminals by their fans has gone unpunished. For displaying their identity, the Swiss players were facing a fine and a two-match ban. However, FIFA only fined the three players and they also fined the Serbian Football Association for their fan’s misbehaviour including the displaying of political banners during the game against Switzerland. Still it seems to be a very lopsided punishment when there is a case to be argued that the Swiss players hadn’t done anything wrong.

Sadly, the all-round hatred in the region hasn’t just been isolated to the Switzerland/Serbia match. The most recent infamous incident was at a game between Serbia and Albania in October 2014. The game had to be abandoned after a drone carrying a nationalist Albanian banner was flown low over the pitch. The spark for the resulting violence was a Serbian player tearing down the flag, the ensuing melee of players and rioting fans saw English referee, Martin Atkinson, abandon the game. FIFA awarded a 3-0 victory to Albania citing a failure by the Serbian authorities to properly control the fans. In October 2016 both the Kosovan and Croatian football associations were fined for anti-Serbian chanting during their World Cup qualifying game.

The double hand eagle gesture is a symbol of identity, while the three-fingered Serbian salute acts as a goading reminder of the murders of thousands of Kosovan civilians. While football and politics shouldn’t mix, they invariably do. Whether for good or bad, much of the football landscape, particularly in Eastern Europe, is shaped by political affiliation. With an apparent persistence in extreme nationalism in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, this landscape will remain the unchanged for the foreseeable future and I am sure this isn’t the last we’ll see of this kind of incident.

By Dave Long with artwork by @_fadjarbuana19 (insta)


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