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How Balkan politics dominated the Switzerland-Serbia game

23 June 2018

9:25 AM

23 June 2018

9:25 AM

Enjoying the football? The politics of it, obviously. The Switzerland-Serbia game was a cracker in this context. The innocents in the BBC box obviously bought the fiction that this was a Swiss team though the two Swiss goals should have put paid to that notion. The hand gesture from Shaqiri when he scored his goal, replicating the more subtle version by Xhaka may have escaped the unfortunate pundits who were focused solely on the sport, but it was, obviously, the Albanian eagle – flapping fingers, got it? And the gesture certainly wasn’t lost either on Serbian observers or on the crowds going nuts over the game in Pristina. This was a Kosovo game by proxy, and it derives from the Kosovo diaspora in Switzerland, where an awful lot of Albanians went during the Milosovic era, not least to avoid conscription into the Yugoslav army and because the regime sacked Albanians in the public service and factories. (Indeed the ramshackle Kosovo economy is still kept afloat, to the extent it is, by contributions from the disaspora.) The conflict in Kosovo may have been brought to an end nearly twenty years ago, but it lives on in all sorts of other ways. The two scorers weren’t the only Albanians in the squad, obviously; just look at the names. So when Shaquiri belatedly said today that his gesture wasn’t political, he really is having us on. He wasn’t playing for Switzerland last night.

And don’t forget that extraordinary foul against Aleksandar Mitrovic last night either, where he was pinned down by two Swiss players, a decision that Serbia is quite rightly complaining to Fifa about. The thing is, the goalie, which, I think Frank Lampard described as a mugging, was German, and as far as Serbia was concerned, the cause of the conflict in Yugoslavia was that Germany was up to its old tricks, though some nationalists did consider the Vatican was also involved. Anyway, a German ref was always going to be problematic in this context. So when the Serbian coach, Mladen Krstajic said, “I don’t have any comments [about the referring decision]… I am a man of sports and I don’t have any comments”, he was, I think, being heroically restrained.


So, the World Cup … a way to bring the nations together through sport? Hah.

PS, It’s not just the Balkans that are viewing the World Cup as politics by other means. I gather from friends in Brazil, where once, during World Cup tournaments, entire houses would be painted in national colours, that the unpopularity of the current government under President Michel Temer is such that some streets this time round are painted in Argentine colours instead (bet they felt silly yesterday). Obviously, people still cheer the team, and schools close early for games, but the appalling notion that the president could get a World Cup bounce is such that some people are backing anyone instead, even the national rivals, Argentina.


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