Teams, players make political statements as rivalry between Kosovo and Serbia spills into the field, dressing room.
Doha (Qatar) –– The backstory first.
In 2018, when Serbia and Switzerland met in the first round of the FIFA World Cup in Russia, the result was one of the most politically surcharged matches in the history of the global sporting event.
With just seconds remaining for the final whistle, Kosovo-born Swiss player Xherdan Shaqiri had scored the winning goal to send his team through to the next round. And not much earlier in the match, Kosovar-Albanian Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka had fired in an equaliser to nullify an early goal advantage for Serbia.
In honour of the Albanian flag, Shaqiri had made the same two-headed eagle gesture as Xhaka earlier as he spun away to celebrate his goal.
The Serbian players exploded in wrath, and the riot that followed had sparked many FIFA investigations into player misbehaviour and an unending debate over the increasing politicisation of the world’s most popular sport.
So, even before Serbia and Switzerland met again at the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar, tensions were running high in both camps over what many said would be one of the most significant geopolitical grudge matches in world football.
The run-up to the match saw many political statements by players and fans–some very loud, some in silence.
For Serbia and Switzerland, the onfield tension stemmed from Belgrade’s refusal to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence following its split from Serbia 14 years ago. Most UN member states, including Türkiye, recognise Kosovo as an independent country.
Serbia and Switzerland are geographically worlds apart, but the latter became a sanctuary for many families from Kosovo and Albania.
Xhaka and the family of Shaqiri were forced to flee Kosovo and Albania, respectively, in 1998, when troops of former Yugoslavia – present-day Serbia and Montenegro – attacked Kosovo.
The conflict was brief but brutal, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people and the flight of 370,000 individuals from Kosovo and Albania who ended up in Switzerland.
Xhaka and Shaqiri are just two of the Swiss stars who identify as being of Kosovo-Albanian descent.
In Qatar, Serbia fired the first salvo.
Before their first match against Brazil on November 24, the Serbian team hung a banner with a picture of Kosovo overlaid with the Serbian flag and the phrase “No Surrender”. -- a typical nationalist emblem seen at Serbian football games and far-right demonstrations.
FIFA immediately announced an investigation into the incident, which resulted in a fine of 20,000 Swiss francs ($21,300) on the Football Association of Serbia.
For fans, however, politics took away the focus from football.
A Serbian fan at the Doha match said the game was politically charged and emotional.
“[But] what is not politically charged nowadays? Regardless of how much I try to run from politics, decisions made by few will always have a consequence on our lives, freedom, and rights,” Ilijah Aritonovic tells TRT World.
“I just wish all sports should abide by values they claim their own cultures are fostering. Fair play, respect, teamwork, tolerance.”
Although Ilijah says he did not hear anything controversial during the match, other fans told TRT World that Serbian fans chanted racist and fascist phrases aimed towards ethnic Albanians. At one point, FIFA had to make an announcement asking fans to “stop discriminatory shouts and gestures”.
The message came over the tannoy system at Stadium 974 in the second half of the clash.
According to a fan who wishes to remain anonymous, the Serbians also sang “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia”, a reference to their nation’s refusal to recognise Kosovo’s independence.
Shaqiri broke the scoreless tie in the five-goal thriller, and Switzerland later overcame a 1-2 deficit to win 3-2.
Xhaka was engaged in two significant incidents during the second half. First, he seemed to make a gesture that enraged the Serbian players watching from the sidelines.
In stoppage time, emotions between the two nations reached a boiling point, and Xhaka, the game’s Man of the Match, was booked for his involvement in the altercation.
Xhaka denied in his post-game interview that he was trying to provoke Serbia, calling the incident an “emotional moment”.
“I think the rivalry is more on the side of Serbian people and players. So during the match, there was a lot of provocation from the players of Serbia. And if that is happening, our player will come,” Michael, a Swiss fan, tells TRT World.
“In the end, it is not easy to stay calm, especially when politics is clearly dragged into football. It has always been like that, football will always be involved in politics. And I think it’s bad, but it will always be like that.”
The match was also played amid fresh tensions between Serbia and Kosovo last month over car license plates. It took the intervention of the European Union to defuse the situation.