For most World Cup fans, it was easy to miss the significance of Friday night’s soccer game between Serbia and Switzerland. At first glance, it didn’t appear particularly noteworthy, but this was arguably the most politicized grudge match of the entire World Cup.
Three of Switzerland’s starters — Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, and Valon Behrami — are of Kosovar-Albanian heritage. A fourth, Blerim Dzemaili, was born to Albanian parents in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. For many in Serbia, this wasn’t a soccer match against the Swiss national team — it was a proxy battle fueled by age-old sectarian hatreds, one that presented an opportunity to lick a gaping wound that scars the collective national psyche.
On Feb. 17, 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, nine years after a NATO-led bombing campaign brought the Yugoslav wars to a close. But while the Serbian people had come to terms with being on the losing end of the long string of conflicts that tore Yugoslavia apart, the loss of Kosovo felt like an intolerable affront to the country’s collective sense of self.
That night in Belgrade, a mob gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy to express their fury. Protests and chants of “Kosovo is Serbia” eventually erupted into violence as the crowd stormed the embassy and set it alight. Since then, the Kosovo issue has become the single most contentious theme in Serbian politics.
The Albanian-majority province of Kosovo had been a part of the Serbian state in its various forms since the Middle Ages. According to nationalist mythology, Kosovo is the cradle of Serbian national identity and culture. It’s home to many ancient Orthodox Christian monasteries and the site of 1389 Battle of Kosovo, where Tsar Lazar died in an ultimately futile attempt to repel the invading Ottoman army. That battle is, for many Serbian nationalists, the defining event in Serbia’s history.
This clash between Christianity and Islam planted the seeds of the religious and ethnic tensions that have steered the political narrative in the Balkans for the past three decades, and the roots of both the Bosnian and Kosovo wars can be traced back to that fateful day in June more than 600 years ago. Symbolically, Serbia’s former leader Slobodan Milosevic chose Kosovo Field — the spot where the 1389 battle took place — as the venue for an infamous 1989 speech in which he positioned himself as the champion of the Serbian people in a post-Marshal Tito Yugoslavia, harnessing the nationalist passions that were beginning to boil over in the region and would lead to a series of genocidal wars during the 1990s.
Although many Serbs have never actually set foot in Kosovo, the region’s centrality to our national folklore fosters a profound feeling of emotional attachment, which is why many in Serbia regard Kosovo’s independence as a national catastrophe. Political careers are made and broken by the Kosovo issue; to advocate any sort of compromise or reconciliation with Pristina amounts to electoral suicide. Even Serbia’s all-powerful, despotic president, Aleksandar Vucic, has to tiptoe carefully around the issue, quietly normalizing relations with the breakaway province while keeping his hard-line conservative base on his side.
In such a political environment, populist chest-thumping over Kosovo is a cheap and easy way to win points that Serbian politicians find impossible to resist. Just days before Friday night’s kickoff, the country’s foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, turned a press conference with his Liberian counterpart into an opportunity to harvest the low-hanging fruit, when he described Serbia’s opening-match win against Costa Rica as “a small, sweet act of revenge.” Outside of Serbia, it is a little-known fact that Costa Rica was among the first countries in the world to recognize Kosovo’s independence. This obscure tidbit of political trivia suddenly transformed Serbia’s unspectacular 1-0 victory over a distant Central American nation into a historical triumph against foreign subjugation. Serbs chalk up petty sporting victories against the nations that have slighted us because we have become so worn down by defeat that we’ll take any win that we can get, no matter how insignificant it might be.
The enduring resentment toward the international community dampens support for the European Union and turns many Serbs ever more resolutely toward Russia, a country with which Serbia enjoys long-standing diplomatic ties and deep-rooted cultural bonds. This was reinforced by the sight of Serbian and Russian fans coming together in Kaliningrad on Friday night, where they sang “Russia, Serbia, Brothers, Forever” in unison as they made their way to the stadium.
Sports is sometimes described as the “continuation of politics by other means,” and nowhere is this more evident than in Serbia. Chants of “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia” are an inescapable feature of both club and international matches in the country. When the Belgrade giants Partizan met the Albanian champions Skenderbeu Korce in a Europa League match last fall, Partizan’s hardcore fans marked the occasion by unfurling a giant banner that bore the image of the 14th century Serbian martyr Lazar. The symbolism was twofold: It embodied Serbia’s ancient attachment to Kosovo and expressed the commonly held view that the members of the region’s Albanian majority are foreign aggressors, just like the Ottomans who killed Tsar Lazar in 1389.
In October 2014, a European Championship qualifying match between Serbia and Albania erupted into a riot when a remote-controlled drone carrying a map of Greater Albania, which includes much of southern Serbia and neighboring Montenegro, flew into the stadium in Belgrade, interrupting the match as it hovered over the field.
When the Serbian player Stefan Mitrovic tried to remove the flag so the game could continue, Albania’s Andi Lila and Taulant Xhaka — the older brother of the Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka — lunged at him, violently snatching the flag out of Mitrovic’s hands. This sparked a mass scuffle between players on both sides and prompted Serbian fans, many of whom had been chanting “kill, kill, kill a shqiptar” (a pejorative term for Albanians) all night, to invade the pitch and assault the opposing team’s players. The match was ultimately abandoned, and the home side formed a human shield around their opponents so they could be whisked away to the relative safety of the dressing rooms as a barrage of seats and other objects rained down from the stands.
Given those recent precedents, the politicization of Serbia’s match against Switzerland was inevitable. When the group-stage match was announced in December, Switzerland’s Kosovo-born star Xherdan Shaqiri wrote on Instagram: “Hmm i like this Draw!” It was a fairly innocuous comment, but Shaqiri, whose family fled Yugoslavia as refugees in 1992, is a vocal patriot who takes to the field in boots decorated with both Switzerland’s and Kosovo’s flags. His post was perceived as an act of provocation in Serbia — the opening shot in a new, soccer-based Battle of Kosovo.
Earlier this month, Newcastle United’s Serbian striker, Aleksandar Mitrovic, used an interview with a local sports broadcaster to fire back with a thinly veiled riposte: “They all flaunt that flag, but then refuse call-ups to play for their national side. That says a lot about them,” he said, dismissively. “If they love Kosovo so much, why do they play in another country’s colors?” Even the Serbian president’s son, Danilo Vucic, was caught stoking the flames of nationalism when he was spotted in the stands during Serbia’s opening match against Costa Rica alongside a number of notorious Partizan hooligans with known links to organized crime. Vucic junior and his companions were all wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a map of Kosovo and the words “No Surrender.”
As the match between Serbia and Switzerland unfolded on Friday night, its political subtext rushed to the fore in a way that almost felt scripted. Mitrovic struck the opening goal for Serbia with a powerful header in the fifth minute and was later denied a clear-cut penalty after being hauled down in the box by a pair of Swiss defenders. Serbia dominated the first half, swarming Switzerland’s players whenever they came within sight of goal. In the stands, a boisterous crowd roared Serbia toward victory and showered Switzerland’s Kosovar contingent with abuse, booing them whenever they touched the ball or appeared on the stadium’s video screens. In the second half, the tide began to turn.
In the 52nd minute, Xhaka, the son of a political prisoner who fled Kosovo after being jailed for his involvement in independence protests, blasted an unstoppable shot into Serbia’s bottom corner. As he reeled away in celebration, he raised his hands to his chest, using them to mimic the two-headed eagle of the Albanian flag — clearly directed at the Serbian supporters who had tormented him all night. Then, in the final minute of the game, the Kosovo-born Shaqiri broke through the Serbian defense and slipped the winning goal between the legs of the onrushing Serbian goalkeeper, Vladimir Stojkovic. The crowd was stunned and, as he sprinted away in jubilation, Shaqiri tore off his shirt, making that same two-headed eagle gesture with his hands in front of Serbia’s silenced fans. (Serbia has formally complained about the Swiss players’ gestures and FIFA is now investigating them, along with offensive political messages attributed to Serbia’s coach and fans.)
The reason why a match against a handful of Swiss-Kosovar players took on such a bloated importance in Serbia is because it presented a rare opportunity to reclaim a shred of lost national pride. Local politicians might like to pretend that they haven’t conceded defeat over the Kosovo issue as they theatrically refuse to recognize its independence, but the fact is that Serbia can merely delay acceptance of this political reality; Belgrade is powerless to reverse it.
Kosovo is now its own country, while Serbia is a diminished one. But instead of coming to terms with this new status quo, Serbia has chosen to retreat into mythology, turning toward the past because the future looks so hopeless.