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My Europe: The Balkans at the World Cup – Are we really that pathetic?

When political conflicts make it into the penalty box, emotions run high. That goes doubly for World Cup time. This time around, nationalism is on the offensive – and journalist Krsto Lazarevic finds that pathetic.

Football can trigger dangerous nationalistic feelings. After a qualifying match between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969, the so-called football war broke out between the two countries, claiming over 2,000 lives.

For some players, coaches and fans from the Balkans, the World Cup in Russia seems to be a continuation of the war by other means. Granite Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri used their hands to form the Albanian double eagle to celebrate their goals for Switzerland and to humiliate the Serbs.

Xhaka was born in Switzerland; his parents come from Kosovo. Shaqiri was born in Kosovo and moved to Switzerland with his parents when he was four years old. Neither of them is from Albania, nor are their parents, and they do not play for Albania. And yet they celebrate their goals against Serbia by forming an Albanian national symbol with their hands.

Swiss footballer Xherdan Shaqiri makes the Albanian double eagle gesture during a World Cup match against Serbia (Getty Images/C. Rose)

Swiss footballer Xherdan Shaqiri makes the Albanian "double eagle" gesture during a World Cup match against Serbia

Distance makes the heart grow fonder

It is not unusual that the diaspora has a very special relationship with their "Heimat" (homeland). A nation you don't really have much to do with is stylized into a mythical place. "Home" is a place that you only know from summer holidays and that you can idealize as long as your parents (and you) receive your salary in euros or Swiss francs.

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To be fair, the Serbian fans in the stadium were yelling insults directed at Xhaka and Shaquiri because of their origins, and forming a double eagle was still a very diplomatic answer to that. It is also absurd that the Serbs feel provoked by a double eagle, even though there is one on their own flag as well. But that's nationalist logic. There's no rhyme or reason to it.

Serbian coach Mladen Krstajic, probably the worst loser of this World Cup, behaved even more outrageously. He blamed German referee Felix Brych for Serbia's defeat and said: "I would send him to The Hague to be tried, just as they did to us."

With the little word "us" Krstajic expresses solidarity with convicted war criminals and claims that all Serbs collectively sat in the dock at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. That, too, is nationalist logic. But unfortunately, many Serbs agreed with Krstajic's testimony. Among those who likely supported his statement: fans who wore t-shirts depicting former general Ratko Mladic, who was convicted of genocide and is responsible for the 1995 massacre of 8,000 people in Srebrenica.

Serbian national team football coach Mladen Krstajic (picture-alliance/dpa/Sputnik/M. Voskresenskiy)

Serbian national team football coach Mladen Krstajic has displayed nationalist fervor

'Za dom Spremni' – Ready for the homeland

The Croatian national team also took the opportunity to glorify war criminals. Could you imagine German players in the locker room after a victory, singing extreme right-wing songs that mocked the victims of German concentration camps? Probably not. But it's normal for Croatian players.

They celebrated their victory over Argentina by singing a song that begins with the words "Za dom Spremni," or "ready for home" — the greeting of the Croatian Nazi collaborators of the fascist Ustasha organization.

The song comes from right-wing musician Marko Perkovic, alias Thompson, who mocks the victims of the Jasenovac and Stara Gradiska concentration camps in his songs. These are camps in which Jews, Serbs, Roma and opposition members were systematically annihilated.

Croatian fans at the UEFA Euro 2016 (Reuters/D. Staples livepic)

Croatian fans have in the past proudly displayed extreme-right leanings – this time, it's the players belting out a fascist tune

This World Cup wasn't the first time that the fascist greeting has caused a scandal for the Croatian national team. When Croatia qualified for the last World Cup in Brazil, player Josip Simunic shouted a loud "Za dom" to the fans, and thousands of them answered "Spremni." Simunic was then banned from the World Cup in Brazil.

But this doesn't change the fact that fascism is still acceptable to Croatian football fans today. That's a pity, because the Croatian side is showing excellent performances these days and from a football fan standpoint, you'd actually want them to be successful at the World Cup.

I can't help but ask: Dear Balkan brothers, are we really this nationalistic and pathetic? And why do we have to keep putting it on display for the whole world to see?

Krsto Lazarevic was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina and fled to Germany with his family as a child. He lives in Berlin, works as a journalist and publicist and writes for various German-language media.

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