Football World Cups have long been giant arenas for flag-waving and nationalist displays. These days, however, the geopolitics bubbling just below the surface have become more complex, and nationalisms can be seen decoupling from flags.
On Monday, Fifa, football’s global governing body, fined two Swiss players, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, 10,000 Swiss francs (Dh37,148) each for making a political gesture after scoring goals in a game that Switzerland won 2-1 against Serbia last Friday: They crossed their hands and spread their fingers to depict the double-headed eagle of Skanderbeg, which adorns the flag of Albania and the presidential standard of Kosovo. Three players on the Swiss squad, Xhaka, Shaqiri and Valon Behrami, were actually born in Kosovo, which Serbia doesn’t recognise as a separate nation. They’re ethnically Albanian, and Granit Xhaka’s brother Taulant, also a professional football player and also born in Switzerland, plays for the Albanian national team. But neither Albania nor Kosovo — a Fifa member only since 2016 — made it to the World Cup, and their fans feel they are represented by Switzerland, a peaceful, neutral, prosperous country that’s in many ways the opposite of Kosovo.
That unusual stand-in was especially relevant against Serbia, whose fans did a lot of traditional nationalist flag-waving; some showed up in shirts bearing the likeness of Ratko Mladic, the general convicted of genocide last year by The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. After the game, in which Shaqiri scored the winning goal in the last minute, the Serbian coach demanded outrageously that the German referee be sent to be tried in The Hague — “the way they try us.” Fifa fined the Serbian federation 54,000 francs for this and the fans’ displays: Political messages are banned in international football.
So where do the Kosovar-Swiss players’ loyalties really lie? “I feel that I have two homes,” Shaqiri wrote in a recent, moving story for The Players Tribune. “It’s that simple. Switzerland gave my family everything, and I try to give everything for the national team. But whenever I go to Kosovo, I immediately have the feeling of home, too.”
The same question concerning loyalties, parallel or divided, was asked not long before the World Cup about Germany’s stars of Turkish origin, Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, after they posed for campaign photos with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Gundogan signed his T-shirt for him, “With respect for my president.” The photo opportunity resulted in a torrent of abuse against both players — and in German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s inviting them for a chat to clarify their allegiance. The players explained that despite a strong connection to their roots, they were proud to represent Germany, but a certain coolness has remained in the air, reinforced by the two-thirds support Erdogan received from Germany’s large Turkish diaspora in last Sunday’s presidential election. Somehow, neither Ozil nor Guendogan has performed well for the German team in its first two games.
In previous years, French nationalists often derided that country’s players’ African and Arab roots (the doyen of the nationalists, Jean-Marie Le Pen, famously accused them of not being able to sing La Marsellaise because they’re foreigners). The French government, for its part, championed the team as a (somewhat deceptive) example of successful integration. But now the suspicion of incomplete loyalties has moved well beyond France, to places that weren’t known for it before.
In Sweden, whose team was led brilliantly for a generation by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, son of a Bosnian Muslim immigrant, Jimmy Durmaz, an Assyrian whose family had immigrated from Turkey, faced online racial abuse after making a mistake in Sweden’s game against Germany last Saturday which led to Germany’s last-minute goal. The whole Sweden team was moved to record a video to show solidarity with Durmaz, who identified himself in the clip as a proud Swede. But Sweden, which has, in recent years, accepted more immigrants per capita than any other European country, likely hasn’t seen the last of the ugly sentiment of which Durmaz was only an incidental target. The far right Sweden Democrats party is at historic highs in the polls.
One could talk, as many nationalists do, of a decline of Europe, a watering-down of identities, a reduced value of flags and symbols. As I watch the World Cup, however, I take a more optimistic view of the current European reality. Though allegiances have grown, and are growing, ever more complex, flags also take on new meanings. For Shaqiri, the Swiss one stands for compassion. To Ozil and Gundogan, the German one signifies the training and selection system that ensured successful careers, which wouldn’t have been a given elsewhere. In Sweden, home to proud patriot Durmaz, a club founded by his fellow Assyrians, Assyriska FF, has even played in the nation’s top division.
Complexity isn’t a problem, it’s an advantage. If Albanians cheer for Shaqiri or Xhaka, Swiss fans don’t stand to lose anything. If Turks root for Gundogan, that’s Germany’s gain. Though Fifa may rightly frown at the various political displays, racism rears its head from time to time and loyalties are understandably questioned, we’re not just watching football, we’re also watching a new Europe coalescing despite all the divisions.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business.