Yesterday’s football match between Serbia and Switzerland held in the Russian city of Kaliningrad was notable for the supreme level of intensity on both sides as well as a deeply controversial decision by the referee in the second half of the match. According to a Straits Times report detailing the most disputed match of the 2018 World Cup thus far, “There was also controversy in the 65th minute when (Alexander) Mitrovic appeared to be held down as he went for a cross but the referee waved play on and there was no video review“.
But the controversy surrounding the match did not end there. Things became heated even before the final whistle blew with a score of Serbia 1 – Switzerland 2. Comparatively late in the match, two ethnic Albanian players on the Swiss team Xherdan Shaqiri and fellow ethnic Albanian Granit Xhaka flashed a provocative hand signal which many Serbian supporters find grossly offensive. To better contextualise these hang signals, one must understand how football has often become a venue for Albanian ethno-political provocations against Serbia.
The Swiss team already raised eye-brows due to a large number of players who are of ethnic Albanian origin. Serbia and Albania continue to have incredibly tense geo-political relations due to a Tirana/Washington supported regime in the occupied Serbian province of Kosovo and Metohija. Rather than downplay these tensions, Albanian football supporters and players have often gone out of their way to up the stakes whenever the two sides clash on the football pitch.
At a match between Albania and Serbia in 2014, the brother of Albanian Premier Edi Rama flew a drone over the pitch bearing the flag of so-called “Greater Albania”. Greater Albania is a controversial movement among Albanian ultra nationalists that seeks the illegal annexation of legally defined Serbian, Montenegrin, Greek and Macedonian territory. The provocation in 2014 caused mass fights to break out both on and off the pitch, resulting in the match being called off and the stadium evacuated.
While the World Cup is supposed to be an apolitical celebration of football, certain political overtones were inevitable when a Swiss team comprised of six ethnic Albanians met with the Serbian national team. Not only did some ethnic Albanians on the Swiss side wear decals of the occupier regime of Kosovo and Metohija on their shoes, but after the infamous game-winning Shaqiri goal, the following hand signals were flashed.
— JLM (@JamesLawsonMiln) June 22, 2018
These hand signs which represent the flag of Albania would have been inappropriate during any match in where ethnic Albanians were playing for a Swiss national team. The fact that this happened in a match against Serbia was doubly incendiary due to the ongoing political conflicts between Albanians and Serbs.
Instead of embracing the legacy of Swiss neutrality, Shaqiri and Xhaka brought shame upon Switzerland by provoking the opposing team while wearing the uniform of Swiss football. The only solution at this point is for FIFA ( the International Federation of Association Football) to sanction the Swiss team in order to hold the Swiss side responsible for the provocative actions of its players.
FIFA must also make clear that controversial political statements must stay far away from the pitch during the duration of the World Cup. While there is little anyone can do about a deeply controversial omission by the referee which effectively handed Switzerland the match, something can be done about what happened after the match winning goal.
Either FIFA enforces an atmosphere of political neutrality at the World Cup or the image of football’s most important tournament will forever be tarnished.