Updated: June 24, 2021 9:10:55 am
Austrian forward Marko Arnautovic’s goal against North Macedonia in the 89th minute of their Euro 2020 group match was by no means a last gasp winner. His team was comfortably leading the game 2-1 till that third goal, and there were no signs of a comeback by Macedonia.
But Arnautovic’s goal celebration was wild. Much of his aggression appeared to have been directed at one of the Macedonian players. Serbian media reported that he allegedly used racist language in his outburst. He also flashed the ‘OK’ hand gesture, an innocuous symbol that was till recently used to indicate that all is well, but has now become a hate symbol appropriated by white supremacists.
Facing pressure from the Football Federation of Macedonia (FFM), the governing body of football in Europe, UEFA, has now appointed an ethics and disciplinary inspector to probe the incident.
What sparked the goal celebration?
While Arnautovic has apologised on Instagram for the “heated words” and underlined “I am not a racist”, the FFM’s statement calling for strong action against him hinted that he targeted Macedonian winger Ezgjan Alioski for his Albanian roots.
Arnautovic, whose father is Serbian, is accused of yelling an anti-Albanian slur during the goal celebration, stopping only after his captain David Alaba stepped in to restrain him.
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What is behind the animosity?
Even decades after the violent break-up of Yugoslavia, tensions around ethnicity continue to simmer and persist in the Balkan region. Kosova was the last province of erstwhile Yugoslavia to breakaway after unilaterally declaring independence from Serbia in 2008. And till date, Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo, where the majority population are ethic Albanians.
While leaders from Serbia and Kosovo resumed negotiations on Tuesday to resolve the historical differences over territory, hopes of a swift resolution appear distant, though it is within their best interests to set aside the rift if they want to join the European Union. Relations between Serbia and other Balkan neighbours, particularly Croatia, a member of the EU that could block or delay its accession to the union, have also been traditionally difficult owing to bloody conflicts in the 90s.
In 2017, North Macedonia also upset Serbia when its Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he would support Kosovo’s membership in UNESCO. But the two countries currently maintain friendly relations, with Serbia even donating Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines to North Macedonia earlier in February.
Past instances of Balkan politics overshadowing a major tournament
At the 2018 World Cup, Switzerland players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri were fined £7,600 each by FIFA for their goal celebrations. The two players, who have Albanian links, celebrated by putting their hands together to form a double-headed eagle, similar to the one on the Albanian flag, during a group tie against Serbia. While Shaqiri was born in Kosovo, Xhaka’s Albanian parents were from the country.
What action could be taken against Arnautovic?
The former West Ham United player is likely to miss the tournament if found guilty of racist conduct. According to the 2019 edition of UEFA’s Disciplinary Regulations, any person “who insults the human dignity of a person or group of persons on whatever grounds, including skin colour, race, religion, ethnic origin, gender or sexual orientation, incurs a suspension lasting at least ten matches or a specified period of time, or any other appropriate sanction”.
Even if UEFA takes a lighter view of the incident, Arnautovic could still face a one-match suspension “or a specified period for: insulting players or others present at the match.”
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