contributor perspectives

Jul 9, 2018 | 10:00 GMT

6 mins read

The Balkan Wars Revisited at the World Cup

Board of Contributors
Thomas M. Hunt
Board of Contributors
Swiss player Xherdan Shaqiri's celebration after scoring a World Cup goal against Serbia included flashing the Albanian eagle. Shaqiri was born in Kosovo, whose ethnic Albanian population fought a destructive conflict with Serbia in the 1990s.
(CLIVE ROSE/Getty Images)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.
  • The World Cup brings national sentiments to the fore among even casual fans, especially in countries whose teams have qualified for the tournament.
  • Switzerland is home to thousands of Albanian refugees who fled the former Yugoslavia during its brutal and devastating conflicts two decades ago.
  • The politics of the Balkans' lingering ethnic tensions manifested on and off the pitch in the Swiss match against Serbia.

By Thomas M. Hunt and Austin Duckworth

I just returned from teaching a monthlong study abroad program in Lausanne, Switzerland, the home of the International Olympic Committee and myriad other athletic organizations. The city's international sporting institutions make it ideal for studying legal and political issues in sports. But events outside the formal classroom environment, such as the commencement of World Cup play, also proved meaningful to the students.

Watching the World Cup abroad is a special experience. For the monthlong duration of the event, whole cities come to a standstill, especially as their countries' teams compete. Waiters at cafes at times seem almost unable to take orders because they are so transfixed on what's taking place on the field of play. In Lausanne, my favorite spots to watch the matches were inevitably communal in nature: The terrace of a bar at the base of the nearly 800-year-old Lausanne Cathedral called the Great Escape or a craft brewery in an industrial section of the city called La Nebuleuse. Indeed, it was here that my teaching assistant Austin Duckworth and I watched what surely will be remembered as the most politically meaningful match in the group stage of this year's competition, the one pitting Switzerland against Serbia. Nationalism and the memory of Balkan conflict were on strong display.

How, one might wonder, did that most neutral country of Switzerland become involved in such a display? The answer has to do with the legacy of the old Yugoslavia. First pieced together as a monarchy in 1918, the nation became a socialist federation at the conclusion of World War II. Its authoritarian leader, Josip Broz Tito, kept the ethnically diverse (and notoriously quarrelsome) Balkan population under control using tactics that included setting up six regions, each with a distinct ethnic and historical character. Among those, Serbia was unique in that it possessed a set of self-ruling provinces, one of which was Kosovo.

After Tito's death in 1980, long-suppressed discord among Bosnian Muslims, Croats, Serbs and Kosovar Albanians threatened to explode. In terms of the latter two groups, the 1988 rise to power of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic signaled a dramatic escalation in tensions. Determined to assert Serbian control over Kosovo, he introduced a series of measures designed to reduce the province's powers of self-governance. This, in turned, catalyzed sentiments for Kosovar independence among the ethnic Albanian population. Although the populace of the former Yugoslavia had been embroiled in civil conflict for years, it was not until February 1998 that outright warfare erupted over the issue of Kosovo.

By that point, thousands of residents already had fled the former Yugoslavia in droves, many making their way to Switzerland. Today, over 200,000 ethnic Albanians live in the country (most of whom came from Kosovo). Switzerland has in the main had a complicated experience with its Balkan immigrants. I was in the country back in 2016 when a Euro cup match between Switzerland and Albania occurred as anti-immigrant sentiments — encouraged by the conservative Swiss People's Party (the strongest in the country) — was intensifying. Even though the Swiss won that night, the Albanian expatriates were jubilant: This was the first time that their ancestral home country had qualified for a major international competition. I remember lying awake at night as a seemingly endless stream of honking cars driven by jubilant Albanian fans circled the city.

Things seemed different this time around. The Swiss national football team featured two players of Albanian descent — midfielder Granit Xhaka and forward Xherdan Shaqiri. As it happened, they scored Switzerland's only goals in the team's 2-1 victory over Serbia. During their goal celebrations, Xhaka and Shaqiri both made hand gestures representing the Albanian eagle, a nationalist symbol, in a clear dig at their opponents and an echo of the Balkan wars. In the end, each was fined the equivalent of more than $10,000. Moreover, team captain Stephan Lichtsteiner, a Swiss native who joined them in making the hand gesture, received a lesser fine.

In an interesting twist to the case, the Serbian football federation was punished to the tune of nearly $55,000 for the behavior of its fans at the event, which, according to FIFA, included the "display of discriminatory banners and messages by Serbian supporters as well as for throwing objects during the match." Serbian coach Mladen Krstajic was also sanctioned for a series of provocative post-match remarks comparing the referees' handling of play to the manner in which post-conflict human rights cases were conducted at the Hague's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia — proceedings that Serbs overwhelmingly believe were one-sided and unfair. The focus of Krstajic's ire was a no-call (that did not draw even a video review) midway through the second half when Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic was virtually tackled in the penalty area by a pair of Swiss defenders. "We were robbed," he said. "I wouldn’t give him [the offending player] either a yellow or red card, I would send him to the Hague. Then they could put him on trial, like they did to us." In a follow-up post on Instagram, the coach again invoked the theme of judicial bias at the tribunal. "Unfortunately," he said, "it seems that only the Serbs are condemned to a selective justice, once [at] the damned Hague and today in football."

The Swiss-Serbian match is unlikely to spark fresh debate on the actual record of human rights abuses in the former Yugoslavia. But it does help to illuminate several geopolitical realities. Migration patterns may have changed the face of modern Europe, but ethnic and religious tensions still bubble just under the surface. Indeed, they present steep challenges on a range of issues — security monitoring, law enforcement, and the provision of public services, to consider but a few. On the other hand, a number of advantages accrue to those countries that serve as major recipients of new population groups. Among them are younger demographics, greater cultural diversity and higher rates of societal innovation. In Switzerland's case, its once moribund national soccer team has even been transformed with the infusion of outside talent.

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