Serbs appeared angrier Saturday at the referee who officiated their country’s 2-1 World Cup defeat than at two Swiss players who provocatively flashed Albanian nationalist gestures after scoring.
Years of simmering Balkan tensions surfaced at the World Cup on Friday night as Switzerland beat Serbia in Kaliningrad. The two Swiss goals came from ethnic Albanians Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, both of whom celebrated with a hand signal of the double-headed eagle on the Albanian flag.
“The Swiss Provocation,” wrote Serb nationalist daily newspaper Vecernje Novosti alongside photographs of the gestures and a picture of Shaqiri’s boots, which have the Kosovo flag on one heel and the Swiss flag on the other.
The families of both goal scorers hail from Kosovo , the former Serb province whose 2008 declaration of independence is not recognized by Serbia and remains a source of friction between the Balkan neighbors.
Thousands of Kosovo Albanians trekked across Europe in the 1990s fleeing rising ethnic tensions that culminated in a bloody 1998-99 war of independence between ethnic Albanians and Serb forces that left about 10,000 people dead. Many settled in Switzerland, but still have strong feelings for their homeland – Xhaka’s brother plays for the Albanian national team.
Serbian football officials complained to world football’s governing body, FIFA, about the gestures, but appeared far angrier about the failure of German referee Felix Brych to use a video review when two Swiss defenders manhandled Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic to the ground in the second half. Brych ignored Serbian players’ penalty appeals.
FIFA had no immediate comment Saturday about the video decision nor the hand gestures. Serbian football association Vice President Savo Milosevic reacted angrily after the match.
“I understand maybe the referee didn’t see it, but that’s why we put VAR (video assisted review) on. What are (those) guys doing up there?”
Serbian newspapers gave more space to the VAR spat than to the nationalist gestures.
In the Kosovo capital, Pristina, fans set off flares when the Swiss players scored . Fans in the Albanian capital, Tirana, cheered as they watched the match on outdoor screens.
Kosovo’s president Hashim Thaci wrote on Twitter: “Congratulations to goalscorers Xhaka, Shaqiri and entire (hash)Switzerland on a well deserved win! Proud of you.” He finished his tweet: “Kosova ju don!” an Albanian phrase meaning “Kosovo loves you!”
Thaci is due to meet his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic in Brussels on Sunday for European Union-brokered talks on their countries’ strained relationship.
Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama posted on his Facebook page photos of Shaqiri and Xhaka with their hands crossed in the two-headed eagle symbol and wrote: “Photo of the day.”
Meanwhile in Kaliningrad the day after the match, fans of both sides were not impressed by the gestures.
“Politics shouldn’t be mixed in with sports,” said Stefan Gabrilovic, a Serbia supporter who lives in Australia. “I mean, it’s not right, it’s not right at all.”
Switzerland fan Mannie Affolter agreed. “I think it’s not necessary but I cannot stop them,” Affolter said. “For me it’s too political, they should concentrate on sports. I don’t like it either.”
Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic, who was born in Bosnia, another Balkan nation that fought a war of independence as Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s, didn’t approve, either.
“You should never mix politics and football. You should always show respect,” he said after the match. “It’s a wonderful atmosphere and a positive experience and that’s what football should be about.”