So it’s final then, the World Cup isn’t coming home- to England, rather it would be a familiar France facing a valiant Croatia. In the latter, football is more about politics, but so is in all the other former Yugoslavian countries. Novak Djokovic, the Serbian tennis superstar had declared before the Croatia-England meet up that he’d be all in support for Croatia despite the long-going apparent beef between Serbia and Croatia. “Sports is beyond politics, it’s about bringing people together.” This caused quite a massive upsurge among the Serbian fans. The Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic remarked gloomily that he can’t bear to listen to all the positive commentary about Croatia and that England would have far more Serbian fans cheering for them than they can possibly imagine.
The former Yugoslavian countries have all seen a lot of violence, a history marked by political turmoil and riots. When the Croatian Assistant Coach Ognjen Vukojevic was sacked for posting a video on social media in support of Ukraine- a sensitive subject to Russia, it gave rise to a series of questions about the ongoing situation in the Balkans- and how politics is so deeply intertwined with sports. In fact, it won’t be exaggerating to say that the war in the former Yugoslavia began with a football match between the Dinamo Zagreb and the Red Star Belgrade in 1990. The match saw a massive riot with ultra-nationalists and followers of Akran on one side, and Croat rebels on the other. The Croats were heard shouting slogans like “Kosovo is a republic” which further fueled the riot.
The first Croatian President Franjo Tudman had proclaimed that “football victories shape a nation’s identity as much as wars do” and the country has long described its football players as “heroes” or “warriors”. Croatia has a strong football squad, if not a popular one. It cannot be denied that theirs is a story of struggle. The rampant corruption and the under-developing infrastructure in these countries surely do not help the cause.
Luka Modric, the Croatian captain is not new to struggle. He had seen his entire life getting rocked at the age of 6 when militant thugs shot his grandfather dead and he was forced to live life as a refugee along with his family in a hotel in his war-torn homeland. On December 8, 1991, violent Serbian militia stormed Modrici, his village and wrought terror on families who couldn’t escape their fate. Without any electricity or water, the sound of grenades and bullets had become a regular phenomenon for little Luka. With sheer determination and hard work, Luka is now leading his team to the final. If that’s not a rags-to-riches tale, I wouldn’t know what is.
But Croatia is not the only team with a history of politics and football getting wrapped up. The group level match between Switzerland and Serbia had its own share of controversies. After both Shaqiri and Xhaka scored for Switzerland in their 2-1 victory over Serbia, both players were seen making an eagle gesture with their hands- indicating the Albanian flag. The match, dominated by questions of identity and belonging, of war and peace- saw three players of Kosovo roots in the Swiss team, including both the goal scorers. Kosovo, an ethnically Albanian province that fought a war of independence against Serbian atrocities in the 1990s, is still fighting to gain international recognition and peace. Shaqiri had never shied away from his refugee roots, posting photos of his boots on social media- the left one with the red Swiss flag and the right one with the Kosovo flag. Xhaka’s father was imprisoned in Yugoslavia for three and a half years for joining a 1986 student protest against the central communist government. Serbia still regards Kosovo as a part of its own land, thus the first group level victory of Serbia against Costa Rica was seen as a sort of “sweet revenge” as the latter was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of Kosovo back in 2008. “Kosovo is Serbia” flags were seen looming around the stadium during the Swiss-Serbian encounter and the Serbian fans were heard instigating all the three Kosovo born Swiss players.
George Orwell was right after all, football is indeed war minus the shooting. For the war-torn former Yugoslavian countries, football represents something way greater than sports and entertainment, for them it is a symbol of integrity, of progress and most importantly, of identity. When Kosovo was finally included by FIFA in 2016, a new chapter of its history was written. Playing for the nation, representing it in the World Cup still remains the greatest pride in a footballer’s career, and especially so when the very existence of the independence of your country is seriously questioned. From the assassination of Andres Escobar of Colombia for scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup against the United States that saw his country’s elimination to the fund raising event by the football fans in Kosovo for Xhaka and Shaqiri after being fined for the hand-eagle gesture, football has redefined identity politics. It remains to be seen how far political nationalism and football would go as we dawn towards a new era of refugee crisis like never before.