HISTORY OVER FOOTBALL: Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia rise during the 2022 FIFA World Cup

December 8, 2022

The focus and widespread conversations around the match between Serbia and Switzerland on Friday 2 December at the World Cup, was the ethnic hate and nationalistic incidents between Serbs and Albanians both on the field, between players and team members, and by  fans in the audience.

Before the game began, fans  arrived at the stands with national symbols of Serbia and Albania, some of which were offensive to the other side. For instance, Serbian media reported fans supporting Switzerland, wearing a traditional Albanian white hat, known as the qeleshe, and showing the crossed hand gesture, or the symbol of national pride “flag sign” for Albanians and the “two-headed eagle sign” which Serbians consider a provocation. At the time of this incident, The Guardian reported on a story of an Albanian fan attacked by Serbian fans on the stands, saying he saw them wearing “fascist slogans, T-shirts and flags” as well as chanting “kill, kill, kill the Shiptar,” (Shiptar is a derogatory term for Albanians) and “Kosovo is the hearth of Serbia.” The chants of Serbian fans calling for the killing of Albanians could be heard in the background during the live broadcast of the game.

Ethnic tensions continued on the field between Serbian team members and Swiss team captain Granit Xhaka and player Xherdan Shaqiri, both ethnic Albanians of Kosovo origin. During the game, there were provocations coming from both sides, as Xhaka seemed to grab his testicles while turning to the Serbian team’s bench, which Serbian media and fans interpreted as an insult. Also, after Serbia scored a goal, cameras showed Serbian coach Dragan Stojković Piksi cursing their “Shiptar mother,” insulting Xhaka and Shaqiri.

Kosovar activist Zana Avdiu, made a statement arguing that Xhaka’s testicle grab was improper behavior, which was received negatively by the public and further exploited by the media. Avdiu made a post calling Xhaka’s gesture “an act of a thug.” Her post quickly went viral on social networks, which were filled with insults, threats and calls for violence against her. Media headlines appeared saying she offended Xhaka and should be ashamed for “defending Serbian arguments” which ultimately condoned hateful behavior and legitimised ethnic hatred in the eyes of the public.

At the very end of the game, the tensions culminated when Serbian player Nikola Milenković pushed off Xhaka, which escalated to players from both teams pushing and shouting at each other, and Xhaka and Milenković both receiving yellow cards. As a celebration of their win, Xhaka wore a jersey with the name Jashari, which belongs to his teammate Ardon Jashari. However, Serbian media interpreted this as an insult as well, stating that it is “a clear provocation addressed to the Serbian people,” since one of the founders of the Kosovo Liberation Army was Adem Jashari.

Albanian media was quick to emphasise the nationalist element of the game, and continued to do so throughout the match, with headlines focusing heavily on Xhaka’s clashes with the Serbian team. Mainstream media headlines were sensationalist, praising Xhaka for his actions throughout the game, and pointing out the hatred from both the Serbian team and the fans. Before the match started, Albanian media reported that Albanian and Kosovo flags were banned in the stadium where the game was to be played, which ignited backlash from the public. Social media platforms and online media outlets were almost exclusively characterised by hate speech, ranging from common insults to calls for violence against Serbs. Digital space in Serbia was not much different with hate speech targeting Albanians flourishing before, during, and after the game.

The entire match was fueled with ethnic hatred, which is quite concerning given that relations between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians have  worsened over the past few months, about a dispute on license plates. Kosovo Serbs use license plates issued by the Serbian authorities that are considered illegal by the Kosovar government, but have been tolerated in the north of Kosovo that has a predominantly Serb population. However, a few months ago, Kosovo requested that their license plates need to be issued by the Kosovo authorities,  which caused a rise in conflict leading to many hateful and even violent incidents and some Serbs eventually leaving their jobs and mandates in Kosovo institutions. This dispute was  settled in an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia representatives in Brussels in late November, however hateful narratives in the media are still on the rise, and incidents at huge international events such as this one are very concerning.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have witnessed such hostile behavior coming from players and fans during matches. In 2014, during a qualifying match for the European Championship between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade, a drone flew over the stadium displaying a flag of “Greater Albania” – a nationalist symbol of unification of all territories inhabited by Albanians. After Serbian player Stefan Mitrović caught the flag, a fight broke out between the players, then the game was cut off. This caused a lot of hate at the time and is still relevant when talking about relations between Serbs and Albanians. Also, during the last World Cup in Russia in 2018, Switzerland won a match against Serbia after which Xhaka and Shaqiri celebrated by showing the crossed hand gesture which also raised tensions and led to them being fined by FIFA.

After the match on Friday, FIFA announced that the Serbian team was under investigation for the second time during this World Cup. The Football Association of Serbia is being investigated for possible violation of three articles of FIFA’s Code of Conduct which refer to inappropriate behavior of players and officials, discrimination, and order and security at matches, for their behaviour during the match.

Previously, FIFA initiated a disciplinary procedure against Serbia because of photos from Serbia’s dressing room that surfaced after the match with Brazil, showing a flag of Kosovo as a part of Serbia with the words “Nema predaje” (no surrender) written on it. The investigation was launched for accusations of “offensive gestures, signs or language” and “using a sporting event for messages of a non-sporting nature”. This flag is often used among nationalists and the far right in Serbia. Both complaints against Serbia were filed to FIFA by the Football Association of Kosovo.

Serbia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, commented on this incident for TV Prva, saying “What here is not in accordance with international law and what is offensive? This is an indication of how there are no principles, but only double standards. They would never punish Ukraine if they said, “Donbas is ours” and “Crimea is ours,” what is the difference?

This rhetoric of comparing the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia to an ongoing war in Ukraine is extremely dangerous, however, it is not new, as it has been present in the media since the beginning of the Russian invasion. This inflammatory rhetoric has been used to stir tensions between Serbs and Albanians causing a wave of disinformation in the media which lead to some acts of violence in the north of Kosovo.

 Neither Serbian officials, the Football Association of Serbia, nor the coach and the players had any comments about the events that occurred during the Friday match. Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, congratulated Switzerland for their victory writing “Serbia does not pass. Congratulations to Switzerland!” on his official Facebook profile. Vjosa Osmani, the President of Kosovo, wrote: “Bravo Albanians” along with a photo of Xhaka and Shaqiri from the match against Serbia at the last World Cup in 2018 in Russia. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said that it was wrong for the two Swiss national team members to be “used for political purposes” and that he did not consider it necessary to comment on Switzerland’s victory “because it’s a representation of another country. I am not the prime minister of Switzerland; I am the prime minister of Albania… And I would scatter the flames of nationalism… And nationalism is as funny as it is dangerous“.

Reporting Diversity Network’s research shows that ethnic-based hate speech is present the most in the region, as almost 25% of recorded hate speech incidents were aimed against ethnicity. RDN monitors reported a recent rise in ethnic-based hate speech and disinformation in Kosovo, Serbia, and even Albania in the past few months. The media often resort to sensationalism and spread harmful disinformation and hateful narratives creating even more hostility between Serbs and Albanians. Tabloids also often disseminated messages coming from politicians and government officials that included inflammatory language without providing a critical standpoint. All of this led to an elementary school teacher from Novi Sad, Serbia, reporting that her students sang a fascist chant “ubij, zakolji da Šiptar ne postoji” (kill, slaughter, so that Shiptar does not exist). The same chant could be heard on Vienna’s streets right after the match on Friday, as fans were walking back home. 

Incidents like this show how present and accepted ethnic hate is in our societies with the media often fueling it. It is crucial that the media in the region is held accountable for the hate speech it produces. It should  focus on objectivity and  take on its role as an educator of the public when it comes to human rights and democratic values.

Author: Anja Andjusic

Photo: kovop58/ Shutterstock