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Eagles on the Field

The World Cup points to Balkan issues that could still muddle European integration.

by Boyko Vassilev 28 June 2018

Bulgaria can mobilize the Western Balkans to step up its efforts for EU accession – and convince the EU to be amicable to those efforts.


That was the ambitious idea of Bulgaria’s prime minister, Boyko Borissov, when the country assumed the European Union’s rotating presidency, slated to end on 30 June. He insisted that the Balkan states should abandon their feuds and work together to impress an estranged Brussels, fatigued from previous enlargements. And he received the enthusiastic support of all Western Balkan leaders. But Borissov, a prominent football (soccer) fan, would have done better to wait for the World Cup in Russia.


Balkan passions erupted there on 22 June, when Serbia lost to Switzerland by a score of 1-2. Fateful was that three of the Swiss players have Kosovar Albanian roots.


Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, declared independence in 2008 after a long confrontation with the authorities in Belgrade, which culminated in the 1999 war. Many in the Serbian political elite still consider Kosovo a part of the country’s territory and, because of the presence of Serbian Orthodox monasteries, even a holy land, a “Serbian Jerusalem.” This unsolved issue is a key hurdle to the integration of both Serbia and Kosovo into the EU.


In other words, the match was loaded with Balkan political tensions; even the coach of Switzerland was a Bosnian Croat. Apart from that (or maybe because of that), it turned out to be a game full of high drama. The Serbs notched the first goal. Then, two of the players with Kosovar backgrounds – Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri – scored the next two and captured a victory for Switzerland.


The scandal came from the way they did it. After scoring, both players made the Albanian eagle salute, in reference to the national flag of Albania. The Serbs were outraged. Up until that point, the Russian public had been supporting them as their “Slavonic and Orthodox brothers,” perhaps, some speculated, provoking the ethnic Albanians to their gesture. In any case, when the match turned wild, emotions on both sides came to a boil.


The media was understandably keen to follow related developments. On closer inspection, Shaqiri apparently had the Swiss flag stitched on one of his shoes – and the Kosovo flag on the other. He was born in Kosovo and left as a child, so he practically never lived there. The same for Xhaka. Born in Basel, he knows, however, that his father was imprisoned and beaten as a campaigner for Kosovo independence. His brother, Taulant, plays for Albania (in an equally emotional match that Switzerland won, Taulant once competed against his brother, Granit, as their mother watched from the crowd in Tirana with a T-shirt combining both flags).


So, have you had enough of Balkan football passions? Hold on, there is more. When Serbia and Albania played against each other in 2014, a remote-controlled drone carrying a Greater Albania flag landed on the pitch. A Serbian player initially caught it, but Taulant Xhaka and a fellow Albanian prevailed and ended up with the flag. That wild night is still fixed in the public memory in both countries. 


All of this is not a good argument for the Western Balkans’ EU integration. Just imagine an ordinary Swiss football fan who watches his national game. How many of these sophisticated facts and overheated emotions can he grasp? Brussels is in the same position. You know the feeling: sometimes you are tired and you stop listening to either side.


Or perhaps it is the other way round. If Balkan countries do not have a clear European perspective, would they care to change?


These hard questions have been tormenting the Bulgarian presidency. During a Sofia summit on 17 May, the answer was somewhere in between. Brussels did give a perspective for the Western Balkans’ EU ambitions, but placed it in an indefinite future, once those states did their homework.


What about Bulgaria itself? It was curiously absent from the Albanian eagle issue. The details were as distant to the Bulgarian as to the Swiss viewer, and the TV commentators did not even bother to mention them. Bulgaria is far removed from the Yugoslav context. Sofia followed a sensible and peaceful political path in the 1990s, so it can forgo such passions.


In fact, it is just the opposite for Sofia with these bitter passions on the pitch: football has been a way of building bridges between Bulgarians and fellow “Balkanians.” Recently, Serbian writer Marko Vidojkovic told me that he still remembered the great Bulgarian football team from 1994, which impressed everyone during the World Cup held in the United States. For him, Bulgarians were not the villains from several wars that happened decades ago, but “neighbors, who finished fourth in the World Cup.”


Isn’t it nice? After all, football is magic, for worse, but mainly for better. Prime ministers, take note.

Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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