Politics on the pitch: Operation double eagle

Game of Our Lives, the football podcast from Al Jazeera, is covering the goals, triumphs, tragedies and politics of the 2018 World Cup.

    Try as they might, FIFA can't keep politics out of the beautiful game.

    For football fans, players, and even officials, the events of the past few days have been a stark reminder of just how prominent politics are in this summer's World Cup held in Russia.

    Last Friday, Egypt's Mo Salah was photographed at a ceremonial banquet where he was granted "honourary citizenship" by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. This comes just weeks after the publication of a photo featuring Salah and Kadyrov that resulted in criticism against the footballer, as Kadyrov faces accusations of outrageous human rights violations.

    It's been rumored that Salah's frustration with being the centre of political controversy has driven him to think about leaving the Egyptian national team.

    "You looked at his body language in the game against Saudi Arabia, he was miserable. He didn't even smile when he scored," says Tony Karon, cohost of Game of Our Lives podcast.

    "And where is FIFA? With its insistence of keeping politics out of things?" says host David Goldblatt.

    The Egyptian national team lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia on its final match at the group stage. It will not be advancing to the round of 16.

    In a new episode of Game of Our Lives, Goldblatt and Karon talk about all this and more, including the appearance of the Albanian double eagle, a political symbol flashed by players on the Swiss team during the Serbia vs Switzerland match on Friday.

    Then, Goldblatt calls up Mumbai-based journalist Supriya Nair to talk about why she keeps watching teams that won't win, before checking in with Godwin Enakhena in Lagos, where Nigeria fans are perched between hope and despair.

    Read an excerpt from the conversation between Goldblatt, Karon, and senior producer Raja Shah, below, and listen to the full episode in the player above.

    Tony Karon: The former Yugoslav Republic of Switzerland, as we call it, has always had a strong contingent of players from particularly Bosnia and Kosovo, which as we know were pretty brutalised by the Serbs during the wars of the breakup of Yugoslavia. So, what we saw in this match was twice, when the two goals Switzerland scored were scored by Kosovar-Albanian ethnic players - that would be Granit Xhaka of Arsenal and Xherdan Shaqiri of Stoke City. In both cases when they scored those goals against, you know, "the old enemy Serbia",  they ran at the cameras, crossed their fists, and made the gesture of an eagle which is a signal to everyone who understands Balkan politics of the Albanian flag - the double headed eagle.

    David Goldblatt: And indeed the notion of a greater Albania. It's stronger than that isn't it, Tony? It's not just saying, "We love Albania". This is saying, "We are behind the greater Albanian project which envisages a situation where all ethnic Albanians end up in an Albanian state". And certainly that Kosovo, which is now majority-Albanian, is not part of Serbia. That is very contested. 2008 Kosovo declares independence. Many countries in the world recognise its independence. Many don't. Serbia obviously is one of those.

    It's worth remembering the eagle has appeared at football in the Balkans before. You go back to 2010, when Serbia are playing Italy in Genoa in a World Cup qualifier and they burn a huge Albanian flag in the stands. Number one. Number two: A couple of years back Serbia are playing Albania in Belgrade in a World Cup qualifier, some Albanian dude gets hold of a drone and flies the drone above the stadium with a six-foot-long Albanian double headed eagle flag. Then lowers the damn thing onto the pitch. One of the Serbs grabs the flag to try and take it away. Then two Albanians try and get the flag back from him. A fight begins. Then you've got ultranationalist hooligans in the crowd who start storming the pitch and attempting to attack the Albanians as they try and take the flag off. The game is canceled.

    Raja Shah: It's a crazy video if you haven't seen it. You can find it on The Guardian's website.

    Goldblatt: What's worth remembering here: Again, it's not just the Kosovo Albanians in the Swiss team who are playing symbolic politics here. In the opening game, Serbia beat Costa Rica and the Foreign Minister [Ivica] Dacic makes a big deal of this saying, "This is sweet revenge". Which is for the folks back home. And what that means is Costa Rica is one of the first countries to recognize an independent Kosovo. Much to the chagrin and annoyance of ultranationalists in Serbia. So, beating them becomes this political point scoring. It's like, the Serbs complain and the Serbs say "Oh, FIFA this is politics", and then these dudes are playing politics themselves, right?

    Karon: Of course. Also the Serbs are really channeling what we could call the "Milosevic narrative", which is that Serbia's always being victimized by referees, by FIFA. You know, it's always like, "Poor little Serbia". But the wars for the breakup of Yugoslavia were intimately connected with football; literally political divisions and tensions are growing. But it's a Belgrade Zagreb Derby that really kicks off the violence - basically there's this absolute chaotic riot in which you have Serb police clashing with Croatian players. And this is the moment that kicks off real hostilities, not that they wouldn't have happened without the football obviously  ... And also you know the Belgrade ultras become the Tiger militia and the Arkan. Arkan is a football ultra and then he creates this militia, the Serbian ultra nationalist militia, that is convicted of all kinds of war crimes.

    Goldblatt: And the real legacy of this is that you have a deep and intimate association in Serbia also in Croatia but particularly in Serbia between football ultras and ultra nationalist right-wing politicians being called out on the streets as muscle. So in that case in 2008, when Kosovo declares independence, there are attacks all over Belgrade on the embassies of countries who are recognizing Kosovo, and who's at the front of all of those crowds? Football ultras from Partisan and Red Star. This is really interesting. This is where social media is so amazing, that you can pick this stuff up now. People in Serbia are picking out in the audience at the Switzerland game that the president's son is there. And the president's son is there with a group of Partizan Belgrade ultras, and what are they wearing? T-shirts with a map of Kosovo on them and the words, "No surrender". Now, I think Serbia really are gonna be struggling. I mean, if Switzerland get busted, wow, what are they going to do to Serbia on the politics and football issue?

    Karon: It's kind of ridiculous. We know that FIFA has these rules that ban political gestures and that they're taking this action. That's what this game is all about. It's about a proxy for the very idea of the nation and for that reason of course, all nations have political histories, all nations have enemies. And when you play the old enemy you are watching a ritual reenactment that offers you the prospect of some kind of vindication. That's why people are watching this game in the billions, all over the world. So, for FIFA to kind of pretend, "Oh there's no politics here", is frankly ridiculous.

    Listen to the full episode in the player above, and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

    You can also listen on the Game of Our Lives Facebook. Follow the show on Twitter @gameofourlives

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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