Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri celebrated goals against Serbia in 2018 with Albanian "eagle" gestures. Now, a controversial Serbian flag has reignited the debate.Image: Laurent Gillieron/KEYSTONE/dpa/picture alliance
Just like in Russia four years ago, Serbia face Switzerland on Friday for a place in the final 16. This time, however, the game has been overshadowed by Balkan politics before it's even kicked off.
When Switzerland faced Serbia in 2018 World Cup group stage in Russia, it was the first time the two nations had met on the football pitch. But ahead of their second meeting in Qatar on Friday, the fixture has already become something of a political grudge match.
To the casual observer, it may not be immediately clear what the issue could be between the small and infamously non-antagonistic Alpine confederation and the former dominant power in the old Yugoslavia.
Like around 5% of the Swiss population, both Xhaka and Shaqiri, now national team captain and vice-captain respectively, are of Kosovar heritage. Kosovo, a former province of Yugoslavia with an Albanian majority, declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognized by the vast majority of United Nations member states — and by FIFA.
Belgrade, however, considers it a Serbian province, as does Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the unknown person responsible for hanging a nationalist flag in the Serbian dressing room ahead of the team's 2022 World Cup opener against Brazil last Thursday.
The flag, which was also photographed outside the Iconic Stadium in Lusail, showed a map of Serbia including the Republic of Kosovo in the Serbian national colors, emblazoned with the slogan: Nema predaje – "never surrender."
Tweeting the image, Kosovo's Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport, Hajrulla Ceku, interpreted the flag as "hateful, xenophobic and genocidal."
Switzerland: 'It's all about the football'
Relations between Serbs, Kosovars and Albanians have been strained since the 1990s when, following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the wars which followed, hundreds of thousands of Kosovo-Albanians were forced to flee the Serbian regime under Slobodan Milosevic.
Thousands, including the Xhaka and Shaqiri families, settled in Switzerland and became Swiss citizens. As of 2021, around 114,800 more Kosovars (defined by Swiss authorities as not having Swiss or dual citizenship) live in the country — but they haven't forgotten their Balkan roots.
Nevertheless, when Switzerland face Serbia on Friday in need of a point to qualify for the final 16 — or a victory in the event of an unlikely win for Cameroon against Brazil — Xhaka is keeping his eyes on the football.
"I'm a professional," said the Arsenal midfielder. "Whether we're playing against Cameroon, Brazil or Serbia, it's all the same game for me."
A request to the Swiss football association as to whether any specific instructions would be issued regarding behavior during the game went unanswered, but head coach Murat Yakin told reporters: "It's all about football tomorrow and this is what is going to matter."
The Serbian football association has yet to comment on the matter, while the players have also denied any responsibility.
"I don't know where the flag came from," said center-back Stefan Mitrovic. "We're here to play football and nothing else," added midfielder Marko Grujic.
Defender Milos Veljkovic, in front of whose shirt the banner was hung, plays for Bundesliga side Werder Bremen, a spokesperson for whom told local online portal Deichstube that Veljkovic only found out about the photo after the match, and that the flag was not hanging there when the players returned to the dressing room after warming up.
Kosovo's football federation isn't convinced, with general secretary Hodaj claiming: "FIFA's strict regulations mean that only players and officials — so-called red card holders — have access [to the dressing rooms]."
After the game in Russia four years ago, the Serbian delegation was less reserved in its reaction, with then head coach Mladen Krstajic raging at German referee Felix Brych for not awarding his team a penalty.
"I would send him to The Hague and put him on trial, like they did to us," he said, drawing rather outrageous parallels with Serbs who were convicted of war crimes by the United Nations' international criminal tribunal in the 1990s and 2000s.
Krstajic was fined 5,000 Swiss francs (€5,075/$5,285), as was the former head of the Serbian football association, Slavisa Kokeza. For their part, Xhaka and Shaqiri were each fined 10,000 Swiss francs (€10,150, $10,570) by FIFA for "unsporting behavior."
"In April, the FA, the president and the general secretary all came to an agreement that we're only talking about sport here, and this also applies to the players," said Swiss head coach Yakin ahead of Friday's rematch. "We respect the players, and they also are respectful."
At World Cup dominated more than ever before by off-the-field topics, that remains to be seen.