Why Switzerland vs. Serbia Is Really All About Kosovo

Serbia’s schadenfreude will be on display as the national team seeks revenge against a rival stacked with stars of Kosovar heritage.

By , a journalist and political consultant from Belgrade.
Serbia's forward Dusan Vlahovic (L) and Serbia's midfielder Nemanja Gudelj take part in a training session at the Al Arabi SC on Dec. 1 on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup match between Serbia and Switzerland in Doha.
Serbia's forward Dusan Vlahovic (L) and Serbia's midfielder Nemanja Gudelj take part in a training session at the Al Arabi SC on Dec. 1 on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup match between Serbia and Switzerland in Doha.
Serbia's forward Dusan Vlahovic (L) and Serbia's midfielder Nemanja Gudelj take part in a training session at the Al Arabi SC on Dec. 1 on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup match between Serbia and Switzerland in Doha. ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP) (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images

Serbia and Switzerland face off tonight in the final round of group fixtures at the 2022 World Cup in what has become one of the great geopolitical grudge matches in international soccer. The two sides met at the same stage of the last tournament in Russia four years ago, and tempers boiled over after Switzerland’s Kosovo-born winger, Xherdan Shaqiri, scored a last-minute winner that eliminated Serbia from the competition and secured Switzerland’s progression to the next round.

Before Shaqiri’s strike, the score sat level at 1-1 after Granit Xhaka, another Swiss player of Kosovar-Albanian heritage, canceled out Serbia’s early opener. As Shaqiri reeled away, he celebrated his goal by forming a two-headed eagle gesture with his hands—just as Xhaka did earlier in the match—in tribute to the Albanian flag. Serbia’s players erupted with rage, and a melee ensued, triggering endless controversy and several FIFA investigations into player misconduct.

It is often said that sports are politics by other means, and this World Cup hasn’t been short of geopolitical subtexts. From the United States’ game against Iran, to the Iran team’s refusal to sing their own national anthem as an alleged silent protest against the oppression of protesters back home, to Qatari “sportswashing,” there has hardly been a more political World Cup in history—barring perhaps Argentina 1978, which was controversially held in a military dictatorship at a time when ordinary citizens were being disappeared and murdered by the state.

Serbia and Switzerland face off tonight in the final round of group fixtures at the 2022 World Cup in what has become one of the great geopolitical grudge matches in international soccer. The two sides met at the same stage of the last tournament in Russia four years ago, and tempers boiled over after Switzerland’s Kosovo-born winger, Xherdan Shaqiri, scored a last-minute winner that eliminated Serbia from the competition and secured Switzerland’s progression to the next round.

Before Shaqiri’s strike, the score sat level at 1-1 after Granit Xhaka, another Swiss player of Kosovar-Albanian heritage, canceled out Serbia’s early opener. As Shaqiri reeled away, he celebrated his goal by forming a two-headed eagle gesture with his hands—just as Xhaka did earlier in the match—in tribute to the Albanian flag. Serbia’s players erupted with rage, and a melee ensued, triggering endless controversy and several FIFA investigations into player misconduct.

It is often said that sports are politics by other means, and this World Cup hasn’t been short of geopolitical subtexts. From the United States’ game against Iran, to the Iran team’s refusal to sing their own national anthem as an alleged silent protest against the oppression of protesters back home, to Qatari “sportswashing,” there has hardly been a more political World Cup in history—barring perhaps Argentina 1978, which was controversially held in a military dictatorship at a time when ordinary citizens were being disappeared and murdered by the state.

The fault lines behind the Serbia-Switzerland fixture center on Belgrade’s continued refusal to accept Kosovo’s independence after its unilateral secession from Serbia 14 years ago.

The fault lines behind the Serbia-Switzerland fixture, as was the case four years ago, center on Belgrade’s continued refusal to accept Kosovo’s independence after its unilateral secession from Serbia 14 years ago.

Since the previous meeting between these two sides in Kaliningrad, the diplomatic standoff between Serbia and Kosovo has barely progressed, while the enduring ethnic animosities between the two sides have already reemerged in Qatar, which promises to turn tonight’s match into a powder keg.

This reflects the political situation on the ground in Kosovo, where fears of renewed interethnic violence were running high in recent weeks after the government pushed on with plans to coerce drivers into surrendering their Belgrade-issued license plates; a recent deal has defused tensions for the time being. Serbia-Kosovo relations appear to be unsolvable. But that’s because relations are treated solely as a political issue, rather than an emotional one deeply rooted in the Balkan character.


Ahead of their opening game against Brazil, the Serbian team decided to hang a banner bearing an image of Kosovo overlaid with the Serbian flag and the words “No Surrender.” This is a common nationalist symbol that can be spotted at soccer matches and far-right protests in Serbia. Danilo Vucic, the son of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, was spottedwearing a No Surrender T-shirt at the original fixture in 2018.

FIFA promptly announced an investigation into Serbia’s “hateful” flag, which is likely to lead to a fine for the Football Association of Serbia. Not that this will change anything. Because in soccer, as in politics, the spiteful joy that comes from seeing the opponent lose often outweighs the benefits of winning. This is why the Serbia-Kosovo dispute has proved so intractable.

For a brief moment in 2020, Vucic and his counterpart in Pristina, Hashim Thaci, appeared ready to strike a deal. There were rumors that former U.S. President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Balkans, Richard Grenell, was prepared to greenlight a controversial land swap proposal that would redraw the maps of the two countries along ethnic lines by exchanging a Serb-majority portion of northern Kosovo for an Albanian-majority slice of southern Serbia.

This was the first time that Belgrade had shown any genuine willingness to engage with a proposed resolution. But the European Union moved quickly to torpedo the deal because Brussels feared that it could trigger other ethnically driven border disputes across the Balkans. The Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague announced that it had filed a 10-count indictment with the Kosovo Specialist Chambers charging Thaci, a former guerilla leader, with war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the Kosovo War. Thaci resigned and Grenell’s mandate was cut short by Trump’s 2020 election defeat, which killed off the land swap proposal for good.

In 2021, the Vetevendosje party and its leader, the nationalist firebrand Albin Kurti, won a commanding mandate in Pristina following snap elections. Kurti has taken an uncompromising line against Belgrade and is insistent that he will settle for nothing less than full recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Although this sounds like a reasonable demand on paper, in practice it is close to a political impossibility.

Even if Vucic did choose to defy majority opinion in Serbia and sacrifice his own career for the ideal of regional reconciliation, the Serbian constitution codifies Kosovo’s status as “an integral part of the territory of Serbia,” which means that recognition would be unconstitutional and thereby illegal.

This leaves Vucic with two options: to alter the constitution, which would require a national referendum that would be doomed to fail, or to impose it undemocratically upon the nation without a vote and hope that his government isn’t overthrown by mass protests. It is highly unlikely that Kurti isn’t aware of this, which is why it could be said that he doesn’t approach the negotiations in good faith. Kurti would argue that there can be no compromise on justice, but that doesn’t make his position any more diplomatic than Serbia’s.

Indeed, throughout his term, Kosovo’s prime minister has shown that he isn’t afraid of provoking Belgrade or angering Brussels in the pursuit of his political aims.

Tensions reached a new peak this November, when Kurti insisted that he would press on with plans to begin issuing fines to drivers if they don’t exchange their Belgrade-issued car license plates for ones issued by the Republic of Kosovo. Many ethnic Serbs in the country have continually refused to comply with this regulation, and there were heightened fears that the measures, which allow the police to confiscate the vehicles of repeat offenders, could lead to further outbreaks of interethnic violence after Serbs barricaded roads and fired live ammunition in protests that occurred over the summer.

The standoff lasted for weeks, and while a diplomatic fix was eventually found after Serbia agreed to stop issuing new license plates to drivers in Kosovo if Pristina backed down, Kurti was publicly criticized by EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell during a temporary breakdown in negotiations as the main barrier to progress—a charge that has usually been directed toward  the Serb side in the past. By the end of November, a diplomatic fix deescalated the issue for the time being, but Kurti’s zeal appears to be alienating friends and damaging his country’s international standing.


The continued failure to normalize relations between the two sides stems from the fact that international negotiators continually treat it as an equation that can be solved by the right combination of diplomacy and policy. But Serbia’s position can only be understood if it is viewed as a matter of political psychology.

Since the beginning, Brussels has tried to incentivize Belgrade to recognize Kosovo’s independence in exchange for political and economic benefits such as EU membership. But polling shows that a vast majority of Serbian voters would reject this trade-off if it was put to a vote. Serbia’s obstructionism is often misconstrued as a negotiating tactic when it is actually a political end in and of itself.

Vucic has already made it clear to the West what Serbia needs from any future deal, yet international actors have chosen to ignore him. In a 2017 interview, the Serbian president told the Swiss newspaper Blick, “Unless both sides are willing to lose something, then the [Serbia-Kosovo] conflict will go on forever.” His words should be taken at face value.

In Serbia, there is an emotional impulse called inat. It is difficult to offer a direct translation—but “spiteful contrarianism” comes close.

In Serbia, there is an emotional impulse called inat that is widely accepted as a key feature of the national character. It is difficult to offer a direct translation of inat, but “spiteful contrarianism” comes close. The English expression about cutting off your nose to spite your face captures the spirit of the term.

A Serbian idiom that helps illustrate inat is the phrase “so long as the neighbor’s cow dies.” What this refers to is a common stereotype in Serbia that people take pleasure in watching others’ misfortune because it makes their own struggles easier to bear. Seeing the neighbor prosper, by contrast, can only be a source of frustration. While similar to schadenfreude in some ways, inat has an element of counterproductive rebellion; it’s an emotional reflex rather than a logical, considered reaction—and it’s malicious by design. This dynamic is a key feature of the dispute with Kosovo.

Serbia may no longer have any control over the breakaway province, but it does have the power to stunt its development as an independent state by blocking its entry into international institutions and waging a derecognition campaign that diminishes the legitimacy of its claims to statehood.

A resolution would require Serbia to relinquish this power, which means that the onus is on Pristina to make concessions if it wants to see changes to the status quo. And, as Vucic has already highlighted, the only deal that he can sell back home is one that is begrudgingly accepted by Kosovo without celebration. The opponent cannot be allowed to feel like they have won. This is inat in geopolitical form.


This same dynamic can be seen in tonight’s World Cup match. After being so comprehensively humiliated by Xhaka and Shaqiri in 2018, Serbia’s players and fans want revenge both on and off the field. The team knows that this is certain to motivate the opposition, but it also means that, if they do win, defeat will feel so much more painful for their adversaries.

But this isn’t just a Serbian quality: It’s a fundamental component of soccer fandom. Many of the sport’s biggest rivalries are disputes over petty differences between neighbors, where the joy of watching your team win is outweighed by the tribalistic pleasure of seeing your opponent lose. Ultimately, soccer is just inat by other means.

Aleks Eror is a journalist and political consultant from Belgrade. His work has been published by Politico, the Guardian and other publications. Twitter: @slandr

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