The 2018 World Cup: Xhaka, Shakiri & Albanian Eagles

by | Jun 27, 2018

World Cup followers of a certain age still shiver, twelve years on, at the very mention of Switzerland v Ukraine.The 2006 ‘round of 16’ encounter was surely the most boring World Cup finals match ever played. And I include in that assessment West Germany’s 1-0 victory over Austria in 1982, sealed with Horst Hrubesch’s tenth-minute goal; a specific result which ensured both teams’ qualification from their group at Algeria’s expense, and that nothing AT ALL happened for the remaining 80 minutes plus stoppage-time. “The Disgrace of Gijon,” they call it. Sufficient infamy to have its own Wikipedia entry.

Serbia v Switzerland last Friday was odds-on to be a stinker. Comedian Andy Zaltzman reviewed Switzerland’s display in 2010’s World Cup as “playing as if trying to extinguish the concept of hope.” And there had been little in their 2018 draw with a misfiring Brazil or Serbia’s 1-0 scuff over Costa Rica to suggest an expansive game in Kaliningrad. Yet we got one, which heralded one of the most watchable World Cup finals weekends in (my) living memory. It piqued my interest in a tournament in which I was previously disinterested and uninterested.

However, the game had more serious under-and-overtones. And there could have been tournament-changing implications for Switzerland after a game with multiple on and off-field controversies (including a VAR decision, of COURSE), which was as politically highly-charged as any 2018 finals’ game…unless or until Serbia meet Croatia.

Switzerland won 2-1, with goals from Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. Shaqiri’s 90th-minute winner was no surprise. It was his fourth World Cup finals’ goal. And he’s ‘done it’ on the proverbial and actual ‘Tuesday night in Stoke.’. Arsenal fans will have viewed Xhaka’s 52nd-minute wonder-strike with ‘interest.’ Gooners of a certain vintage remember John Jensen’s wonder-strike in Denmark’s Euro ’92 final win over Germany and his subsequent inability to do anything of the sort for Arsenal, an inability to replicate country and club form Xhaka has replicated.

The goals will likely become a pub quiz question, as it is surely the first time two players with ‘X’ in their name have scored in the same World Cup finals match. Their celebrations, though, were the story. According to my extensive research (trans: twitter poll) they reminded most English-born football fans of that annoying Nicolas Anelka goal celebration, the winged-bird one, not the ‘quenelle’ of later political naivety.  They were, though, rather more serious.

Kosovo, as many more of us knew when Yugoslavia’s violent dismantling was THE foreign news, is emotionally-central to Serbian nationalism. But the celebrations, from two Kosovan-born ethnic Albanians, were expressions of Kosovo-Albanian nationalism, a two-handed gesture successfully designed to resemble the Albanian flag’s two-headed eagle and to irk Serbia’s already-irked support.

Three of Switzerland’s starting line-up were Kosovan-born. And Shaqiri in particular had never hidden his (multi) national identity. That day, the Players’ Tribune ‘media platform’ published an autobiographical blog by Shaqiri. He recalled wearing boots with Swiss, Kosovan and Albanian flags, during a Switzerland/Albania game in 2012. “Swiss newspapers were saying all kinds of negative things,” he wrote. “But it’s crazy to me that some people feel this way because it’s simply my identity.” He added: “When I run onto the field at the 2018 World Cup, I will have the flags of both Switzerland and Kosovo on my boots. Not because of politics or anything like that. But because the flags tell the story of my life.”

However, nationalist tensions pock-marked the game’s build-up, with Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic particularly and vocally unimpressed with Shaqiri’s and others’ national self-identification. “I’m not interested in what he decides to do and I will not take it as a provocation,” Mitrovic said two weeks ago, confirming that he was lying even as he spoke. And he asked: ”If he loves Kosovo so much and decides to flaunt the flag, why did he refuse a chance to play for their team?”

The answer, of course, is that Shaqiri was an established Swiss international before Kosovo’s competitive international debut in September 2016. And Switzerland DO have a cat-in-hell’s chance of qualifying for future Euro and World Cup finals. But Mitrovic wanted a political spat, not an answer.

Shaqiri reassured Players’ Tribune readers that “the Swiss flag is on my left foot,” the only one he uses in matches to any positive effect. But it seems hard to argue that the hand gesture was “not politics or anything like that” or “simply my identity.”

Whether the gestures provoked Serbian outrage beyond the implications of the goal they celebrated, wasn’t immediately evident from TV footage. But the Guardian newspaper’s ‘as it happened’ correspondent, Paul Doyle, noted that as Xhaka celebrated his 52nd-minute goal, “he made a gesture with his hands.” Doyle claimed not to “know what it was or what it meant” but immediately likened it to “a flapping bird, such as an eagle, like the one in the Albanian flag?” Lucky guess, Paul?

Naturally, Xhaka and Shaqiri were booed throughout by the Serbs, Shaqiri the main target of Serb ire (which Kosovan-born Valon Behrami largely escaped). But their gesturing required investigation. As did Serb responses. Serbian FA chief Slavisa Kozeka suggested his team were victims of a “brutal robbery” rather than Xhaka’s ‘could-have-gone-anywhere’ effort finding the net, or Dusko Tosic’s brain-frozen attempt to play Shaqiri offside when Shaqiri was in his own half.

And he was particularly irked by the match and video assistant referees not giving Serbia a 65th-minute penalty after a grappling threesome between Serb scorer Mitrovic and Swiss defenders Fabian Schar and Stephan Lichtsteiner, the latter a well-known penalty-box grappler, as ex-Celtic striker Gary Hooper could testify after Lichtsteiner’s literally ‘hands-on’ defending during Celtic’s February 2013 Champions League tie against Juventus.

On Saturday, Kozeka complained, not entirely without justification, at the appointment of a German referee for a match against Switzerland. However, he almost willfully undermined Serbia’s case with wild conspiracy theorising about “the whole thing” being an “injustice some people at Fifa came up with.”

Apparently “we all know that more than half of Switzerland’s population is German,” presumably based on two-thirds of Switzerland having some form of German as a ‘first’ language. And, apparently, it was “clear to Europe and the world that Serbia was brutally robbed. I do not expect Fifa to take action in order for this brutal robbery not to happen again, because, I repeat, it was all directed.”

This suggested that Fifa could simultaneously be pro-Russian (see…everything else about the 2018 World Cup since Russia won the December 2010 vote to host it) and anti-Serbian, a neat political trick even for them. Kozeka felt the “scandalous and shameful” celebrations should be “condemned by the whole football world,” moaning that “it was not the only provocation by the Swiss players,” as he condemned Shaqiri for having “a flag of a non-existing country” on their boots. “We expect Fifa to impose sanctions against the players who acted against rules of Fifa and fair play, as well as against the national association of the country they play for.”

Fifa matched his expectations, almost, opening “disciplinary proceedings” against Xhaka and Shaqiri under their disciplinary code’s Article 54, which states that players provoking “the general public during a match will be suspended for two matches and sanctioned with a minimum fine of 5,000 Swiss francs” (CHF). And on Sunday, Lichtsteiner was added to the charge sheet, nominally because the, non-Albanian Switzerland skipper made the gesture in solidarity with his team-mates but conceivably because he’s a bit of a prick in general.
But “proceedings” were also “opened against the Serbian FA for crowd disturbance” and Serb fans’ “display of political and offensive messages.”

And “preliminary investigations” were opened against Serb coach Mladen Krstajic, “for alleged statements (after) said match.” Fifa didn’t specify which ones. But they surely included Krstajic’s suggestion that referee Felix Brych be sent “to the Hague” to “put him on trial like they did to us.” VAR crimes tribunals, eh? Stunning perspective there, Mladen.

Mercifully, perspective prevailed. Whether Serbia’s fans count as the “general public” is unclear. It seems an unusual phrase to include in an offence “during a match.” But, for whatever reason, Fifa’s discipline bods merely fined Xhaka and Shaqiri CHF10,000 and Lichtsteiner CHF5,000 for “unsporting” behaviour (threatening the scorers with further sanction for further eagle gestures).

They also fined Kozeka and Krstajic CHF5,000 apiece for their ridiculous rants. Meanwhile, Swiss vice-captain Behrami suggested that the gesturing “won’t happen in future at the World Cup,” although only because there “won’t be a(nother) special game” like Serbia. “We have to be aware of things like that and learn from them,” he added, less-than-reassuringly.

Criticising nationalism per se is fraught with danger. Such criticism strikes a jarring note when fans’ passionate national pride has played such a colourful, positive role in an increasingly enjoyable tournament. Meanwhile, our right-wing press shame-facedly expresses as much moral outrage at Fifa’s potential punishment of “pro-Brexit” chanting at England/Belgium as at the anti-Semitic, Nazi-saluting England-supporting fcukballs filmed in Volgograd last week.

Shaqiri and Xhaka’s actions were arguably less grim. But they knew exactly how Serb fans, players and management would (over) react to gesturing successfully designed to provoke. And Switzerland could have paid an exorbitant cost if they were shorn of both players for their last group game, against Costa Rica, and any ‘round-of-16’ match they might reach.

It was a great game. But on a weekend when a Gaelic football match near the (soft) Irish border brought Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein leaders into the same selfie, Friday’s grim nationalist under-and-overtones fell between recklessness and a throwback to darker days.