When Switzerland competes against Sweden in the World Cup on Tuesday, no players will celebrate with the eagle hand gesture. At a match on June 20, there was a big to-do over the gesture by Albanian players on the Swiss team.
Why the eagle? And why was there a backlash from FIFA, the organizer of the World Cup?
After scoring two goals against Serbia, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, two Kosovar Albanian players on the Swiss national soccer team, celebrated by making a gesture of the Albanian eagle. FIFA announced it would fine the two Albanian players and their Swiss team captain $10,100 for the celebratory gestures, which it deemed unsporting behavior.
During the same game, Serbian fans booed the Albanian players and wore T-shirts with pictures of Ratko Mladic, the “butcher of Bosnia,” who was convicted of genocide by an international criminal tribunal. In a separate judgment, the World Cup organization fined the Serbian soccer federation $54,700 for its fans’ “display of discriminatory banners and messages.”
While the Mladic image may be self-explanatory, the larger significance of the hand signal of the Albanian eagle, which sits on the Albanian flag and denotes “Albania” in international sign language, warrants more explanation.
Yes, there are political rivalries at the World Cup
The FIFA decision might seem a typical Balkan affair. In 2014, a riot broke out during a soccer match between Serbia and Albania when a fan flew a drone over the stadium carrying the insignia of greater Albania — which included the eagle. As journalist Aleks Eror noted in a recent discussion of the Switzerland game, there are many historical realities at play for everyone involved in that World Cup match.
Serbs and Albanians, and certainly Serbs and Kosovar Albanians, have a complicated relationship and a long history of conflict — particularly over Kosovo, which Serbians view as the cradle of Serbian civilization. Dating to the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Balkan people, the province has assumed a central role in the construction of Serbian national identity — in part through oral and later written epic poetry.
This long history reemerged in Yugoslavia’s ethnic conflicts in the 1980s after years of peaceful coexistence during Josip Broz Tito’s regime. Serbian politician Slobodan Milosevic launched his career through a nationalist platform that instrumentalized the battle mythology to strip the predominantly Albanian Kosovo of its autonomous status.
After Yugoslavia broke apart, significant human casualties on both sides during the late 1990s and early 2000s brought the conflict to a boiling point. Serbia still does not officially recognize Kosovo’s independence, though the Brussels Agreement of 2013 was a step in normalizing relations.
From this perspective, the game between Serbia and Switzerland — a team with four Albanians on the roster — was marked by the long and complicated history of ethnic tensions. The history of trauma and violence is painful on both sides, but the Albanian eagle hand symbols don’t quite stack up to the fans’ decision to wear Mladic T-shirts.
It’s all about the eagle for Albania
Albania, a small country of more than 3 million people, has existed as a political entity for a little over 100 years. During some 500 years of Ottoman occupation and even now, the eagle was not an aggressive or violent symbol. Perhaps to a minority, the eagle symbolizes radical nationalism and notions of greater Albania. During the 2014 drone incident, the eagle had been placed on a distorted red background that signified greater Albania.
But to most Albanians, the eagle — shqiponja — simply encapsulates their national flag and identity, and Albania is the “land of eagles.” The modern Albanian word for “Albania” is “Shqipëri” — and the word for “Albanians” is “Shqiptar.” Although the linguistic ties may be coincidental, Albanians construe the link as authentic and see the eagle as a consistent symbol representing the Albanian people — dating from the 11th century.
Here’s an example. When Albanian national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg fought against the Ottoman Empire during the 15th century, he carried a banner with the two-headed eagle to unite his people. The eagle, with its two heads, serves as that one token of identity inclusive enough to represent a diverse population of Muslims and Orthodox and Catholic Christians.
Given the multi-faith demographic makeup of the country, not many other symbols could serve as unifying identity markers. To Albanians, the eagle denotes pride, heroism, strength and, ultimately, their ability as a people to survive historical calamities — of which there have been many.
For Albanians, the eagle is a proud historical symbol
Different political factions have sought to appropriate the eagle, usually by forcing symbols between the two eagle heads. When Italy invaded Albania during World War II, the regime of Benito Mussolini placed a crown on top of the eagle.
Most notably, the 40-year postwar communist regime of Enver Hoxha adorned the eagle with a star. Yet these ideological and political symbols have always fallen by the wayside, seen by Albanians as misguided attempts to co-opt their identity — and violate the eagle’s unifying neutrality with an ideological message.
Political and economic instability, beginning in the 1990s, led to high rates of emigration. Close to 20 percent of Albania’s population left the country — and many headed to Switzerland, Germany and other destinations, including the United States. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo in 1999 to escape ethnic conflict, followed by subsequent waves of emigrants seeking to escape poverty.
For those abroad, like Xhaka and Shaqiri, who face cultural loss in the process of integration in adopted countries, the eagle often remains the only visible trace of their Albanian identity. In Swiss uniforms, while celebrating with the Albanian eagle, the two players embody immigrant identity and self-expression — with its hybridity, historical references and mishmash of allegiances.
Editors’ note: The post has been updated to reflect that there are four Albanian players on the Swiss national team.