Today, December 2nd, the men’s soccer teams of Serbia and Switzerland are competing for a place in the next phase of the World Cup. The clash is marked by a strong political component, derived from the presence of many descendants of Albanians and Kosovars in the Swiss team. This rivalry has several reasons and origins, some quite recent, and sometimes not sufficiently explained. What is the so-called Kosovo issue about and how is it present at the World Cup?
Many readers may remember the image of the Swiss player of Kosovar-Albanian origin Xherdan Shaqiri making a sign with hands, representing the Albanian double-headed eagle, when scoring a goal for Switzerland against Serbia in the World Cup 2018, Russia. That was one of the most striking images of the tournament and further intensified a rivalry that, at first glance, would not make much sense. Switzerland and Serbia are not neighboring countries and do not dispute titles against each other. It’s not like Brazil and Argentina.
Although the athletes have said publicly that it’s just another game, they only do so following the instructions of their federations, fearing sporting or financial reprisals. After the game against Brazil, Serbia’s first in the current tournament, a banner was placed in the Serbian locker room with a map of the Kosovo region, with the Serbian flag painted over it and a sign that, translated, said “no surrender” . The message is clear and the game will certainly be intense.
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Recalling that, in summary, for Serbia , Kosovo is a Serbian territory that became independent illegally, because it has a significant population of Albanian origin that intends to unite the territory to the State of Albania, in a “theft” of territory by other means. More than Serbian territory, Kosovo is the cradle of Serbian nationality, the place where, in
, Serbian princes came together for the first time to fight against a common enemy, the Ottoman empire.
The Albanians would even be not only associated with the Ottomans in this Serbian national imaginary, but also the “fruit” of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. Dozens of Ottoman grand viziers were of Albanian origin, a population that embraced Islam en masse, including some of the key leaders in Ottoman history. That is, in addition to Serbia classifying, legally, Kosovo’s independence in 2014 as illegal, the separation still directly affects the core of Serbian nationality.
On the other hand, from the perspective of the Albanians, they are the legitimate native population of the region. That yes, it underwent transformations in a historical process of thousands of years, but, even so, they would be the true original inhabitants. One of these transformations is, for example, the adherence to Islam, cited above and the reason for antagonisms in certain periods of history. Perhaps the best public example of this Albanian nativist feeling was given by the singer Dua Lipa, in 2020.
The artist was born in London, of Kosovan parents Albanians from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. That year, she posted an illustration on her social networks that included a map of Greater Albania with the legend “autochthonous”, that is, natives of the region. The map represented as Albanian territory not only the current State of Albania, but also Kosovo and parts of present-day Serbia, Greece and North Macedonia, countries with significant Albanian minorities, especially in the North Macedonian case.
The singer removed the post from her networks after receiving criticism for expressing chauvinist and expansionist nationalist views. She also released a manifesto by Kosovars entitled “Why Kosovo is not and never will be Serbia”, written in response to the Serbian nationalist motto “
Kosovo je Srbija”
, “Kosovo is Serbia” in Portuguese. In short, for the Albanians, or at least part of them, Kosovo’s independence is not about “stealing” territory from the Serbs, but about the “true occupants” regaining autonomy.
International law and politics
Interestingly, Albanian speech, from in a way, it does not contradict all Serbian discourse. One of the issues that Serbia argues is that an independent Kosovo would not make sense because, in a world of nation-states, there is not a “Kosovar people”, but an Albanian people. And the Albanian nation-state already exists. Kosovo’s largest political party, for example, uses the Albanian national flag as its flag, unchanged. The Kosovo flag is rarely seen on its own territory.
Kosovo’s unilateral independence in 2008 also generates two phenomena in politics International. First, it is not as unanimous as it might seem. Several countries do not recognize the State of Kosovo. Brazil is one of them, as the country, historically, rejects the recognition of separatist movements, defending peaceful solutions through mediation and international law, such as the need, before Brazilian recognition, for Serbia to agree.
Another reason why Brazil does not recognize Kosovo is to avoid creating international precedents in relation to eventual separatisms in the Brazilian territory. The same reason that makes Spain not recognize Kosovar independence, avoiding creating precedents against itself in the contexts, for example, of the Basque Country and Catalonia. And, of course, without Spanish consent, Kosovo’s paths towards NATO or the European Union are blocked.
Within the UN, the greatest resistance comes from Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council , which does not recognize Kosovo out of respect for the alliance between Serbia and Russia. Which leads to the second phenomenon. Russia claims that Kosovo’s independence has set a dangerous precedent and that, by the same token, countries that recognize Kosovo as independent should recognize, for example, Crimea as Russian. During the Crimean referendum in 2014, the Russian government explicitly cited the Kosovar case.
Of course this is a brief summary of centuries of history in the Balkans, including the core identities of both Serbs and Albanians. The point is that the same region has both Serb and Albanian populations and, over the centuries, has been part of different entities, from local kingdoms, to great empires, such as the Ottoman, to contemporary states, such as Yugoslavia. Both nationalities claim this territory, in a scenario that worsened after the decade of 1990.
If the declaration of independence of Kosovo is from 1998, the region’s independence process begins in 1998, when Albanian militias Kosovars begin armed struggle against Serbs, still organized in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Kosovar Albanians receive a lot of international support, including NATO bombing of Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia and now the capital of Serbia. The legality and legitimacy of these bombings was also, and is, questioned.
Refugees and the ball
The alleged reason for the western intervention was the protection of Kosovar Albanians against a possible genocide to be committed by the Serbs, a suspected consequence both of the violence of the Bosnian war, with the attempted genocide of the Bosnians, and of the fact that the Serbs were led by the fascist Slobodan Milosevic. And it is in the wars of the former Yugoslavia, whose direct relationship with Kosovo begins in 1998, that is the origin of the fact that many players from the Balkans defend Switzerland .
Although some families of Yugoslav origin already lived in Switzerland, the country received many refugees from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Today, around 7% of the Swiss population is of origin from the former Yugoslavia. Half of them are Albanians, mostly Kosovar Albanians. Serbs and Bosnians also live there in significant numbers, followed by Croats, Slovenes, and finally Macedonians. A good part of these people were welcomed in official programs of the Swiss State, it is important to say.
In the World Cup of 2014, disputed in Brazil, Switzerland’s coach was Vladimir Petković, a Bosnian-Swiss born in Sarajevo who has resided in the Alpine country since 1987. On that occasion, a third of the athletes in the Swiss national team were of Balkan origin. It is not difficult to understand why. In a crowd of refugee boys, from regions where football is the most popular sport, many of them will see sport as a dream of social and material ascension. At the very least, an escape from the traumas of war.
Today, although the proportion of Swiss national team players of former Yugoslav origin is lower than it was in , some of the key players on the team are from the region. Haris Seferovic, son of Bosnians, Granit Xhaka, son of Kosovar Albanians, and Xherdan Shaqiri, born in Gjilan, Kosovo, who arrived in Switzerland at the age of one. And they carry with them their identity, their family heritage, which includes potential traumas, whether individual or collective.
For Serbs, on the other hand, they can mean the population that wants to steal from Serbia their ancestral land, where nationality arose. Again, it’s an issue that touches the core of two national identities, expressed within the football field and in the biggest tournament between national teams on the planet. The result of the game cannot be predicted, nor if the match will go smoothly. It’s a lot of common history at stake.