Of Eagles & Footballers

Our actions have meaning, both the meaning that we intended for them and the meaning that is interpreted by those witnessing them. Whilst in Britain and the States it seems perfectly harmless to offer someone a “thumbs up” to congratulate or to indicate approval, in areas of the Middle East it can be taken offensively. Simple head movements can also be misinterpreted, with many Eastern cultures indicating that they agree with something by shaking their head in a way that in the West would suggest that they disagree. In the US, “throwing up deuces” looks a lot like one of the ways the British use their hands to swear at one another… You see, how we move and use our bodies to indicate a thought, a meaning, or an intent, is often interpreted differently and this is largely dependent on context.

It is not often that I find myself in a position in which I’m able to comment on the content of a football match, but when that happens it is usually because of my experience of working in Albania and with Albanians for over a decade. In recent years, we can recall the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying match between Albania and Serbia in October 2014; in which a flag depicting “Shqipëria e Madhe” (Greater Albania) was flown over the crowd and sparking kindling that had already been provided by decades of tension. Incidents like these offer an insight into a region that is still reeling from the lines drawn and redrawn on maps after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the divisions caused by both World Wars, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe.

It was a very clear political message declared by flying such a flag in the 2016 Albania – Serbia match, and it is hard to dispute that the intent was not to aggravate. It is also notable that shortly after this match, a popular Albanian singer, Elvana Gjata, released “Kuq e Zi Je Ti” (You Are Red and Black) which contains heavily nationalistic tones and traditional dancing/clothing, shows imagery akin to large groups at football matches, explicitly refers to Greater (and Ethnic) Albania, and frequently displays the hand gesture which represents the double-headed eagle. The message in this video is clear: that the Albanian eagle, and hand gesture depicting it, is a symbol of nationalistic pride and it is hard to separate the political connotations in that particular context.

A traditional Albanian musician stands in front of the hand gesture that has come to represent the double-headed eagle. Photo credit: Youtube, Elvana Gjata.

The concept of “Shqipëria e Madhe” states that the country we know today as Albania is actually a small fraction of a greater Albanian state, which many would claim consists of large parts of territory in Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. Ethnically speaking, Albanians are found across the Balkans, and in particular concentration in certain parts of the countries listed, including the disputed territory of Kosovo to the north of Albania and south of Serbia. And it is Kosovo that lies at the heart of this tension between Albania and Serbia.

Thousands (although official figures are disputed) of ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo and sought refuge in Albania (which at the time was financially crippled after the collapse of pyramid schemes that precipitated civil unrest in 1997), after experiencing persecution in the build-up to the Kosovo War and NATO strikes against the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Whilst it would be a disservice to the years of academic study and personal testimony of those from both sides for me to attempt to summarise this conflict in a short paragraph of a larger piece, it is important to note the context of much of the ill-feeling between modern day Albania and Serbia is rooted in this chapter of history. It also explains the deep respect and at times idolisation of the United States and to an extent, Britain, by both Albanians and Kosovars.

And so, we come to the recent 2018 FIFA World Cup match between Switzerland and Serbia, in which the double-headed eagle gesture was displayed once each by Kosovar ethnic Albanian goal scorers Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, and once in celebratory solidarity by their Swiss team captain, Stephan Lichsteiner. After complaints from the Serbian FA, and commentary from politicians on social media, FIFA investigated and although did not ban any of the players from future matches, did fine each of the players individually. It is also worth mentioning that the Serbian FA were also fined for the behaviour of fans, discriminatory banners and the throwing of objects.

Xhaka and Shaqiri celebrate their goals. Photo credit: the BBC.

Xhaka and Shaqiri are both part of the Albanian diaspora. This large (likely larger than the population of Albanians in Albania) group consists of those who fled political tensions in the region (such as after the fall of Communism in Albania in the late 80’s/early 90’s), refugees of the Kosovo War and their descendants, and those who have left either Albania or Kosovo in what is commonly described as “brain drain”: young, often very talented, individuals seeking employment and education elsewhere for fear that their home country is unable to provide them with the same opportunities.

Noting as I have the history of the relationship between Serbia and Albania, specifically the unresolved tension of Kosovo’s independence, and the history of at least one other nationalistically driven display at previous sporting occasions, can we simply view Xhaka and Shaqiri’s display of the double-headed eagle only as an act of celebration, removed from any political connotation? It is also important to consider the reaction of Albanian fans to the display: largely being one of pride and enjoyment at the “Albanian victory” over Serbia; as well as the offense taken by Serbian fans.

Once again we return to context: had this goal celebration been displayed in a match against another team, would we have seen the same outcry from the Serbian FA and fans? Would Xhaka or Shaqiri even have considered making the gesture in that situation? Both players have indicated that this was not a politically motivated stunt, that it was an act both of celebration of their skill, and pride in their nationality.

However, taking them at their word, we must still consider the responsibility we all have and consider that our actions do indeed have meaning, and often consequences. It may not have been the intention of either player to stoke the fires of political animosity, but it perhaps should have crossed their minds that in a match against Serbia, such a symbol would probably do just that.