When Existence Is A Provocation

Three Swiss players were fined by FIFA after a remarkable game against Serbia. Their crime? “Unsporting behavior” per FIFA, “provocations” per the Serbians, and in practice, for showing a hand sign evocative of the double-headed eagle on the Albanian flag. This gesture, while demonstrative of Albanian pride, has never been used in the history of its practice in a widespread manner for any call to aggression against any other ethnic or national group. Instead it functions simply as a symbol of pride throughout both Albania and the Albanian diaspora.

Two of the three players fined were of Albanian descent, one born in Switzerland to refugee parents and one a refugee himself. They used the gesture to celebrate after scoring the two goals that brought Switzerland to victory over their Serbian opponents. The Serbian football federation responded by lodging a complaint with FIFA against the players, stating that the gestures constituted a “provocation” and thus required punishment, which could have included a two game ban. FIFA responded by launching an investigation into the complaint and into the actions of Serbian fans, which included signs declaring “Kosovo is Serbia”, throwing things onto the field, and chants calling for the murder of Albanians, . FIFA’s decision referred to these actions as simply “disorderly conduct”. At the conclusion of the investigation, the two Swiss goal-scorers along with another Swiss player who joined in on the celebrations all received fines and so did the Serbian federation for the actions of their fans.

What is in reality a gesture of pride in one’s heritage has now been transformed into a provocation, a transformation legitimized by FIFA. If the true issue is that the players were playing for the Swiss national team and thus should not have been using Albanian symbols, this decision still has alarming implications.

First, it implies that all football players and fans should have one identity and one identity alone and that not only should they not have multiple identities, but the acknowledgement of any other identity is punishable by thousands of dollars in fines. Identities are rarely mutually exclusive. Statements and decisions that indicate refugees, immigrants, and their descendants should be condemned and even punished for acknowledging and celebrating their heritage supports arguments that say immigrants are incapable of integrating into their adoptive country, or worse, that they can’t be trusted to be loyal. Where is the logical end to this decision? Will all symbols not exclusive to the two countries playing be banned, or all national symbols in general?

The fining of both the Swiss players and the Serbians also creates a sense of false equivalency between the actions of the two groups. If expressing simple pride using a gesture with no aggressive connotations is equivalent to calls to genocide, then FIFA is in practice saying that the existence and acknowledgement of Albanians is equivalent to calling for their annihilation. Given the history of Serbia’s atrocities towards Albanians, this equivalency is not only disgusting but dangerous. Furthermore, it legitimizes the Serbian complaint that any expression of Albanian identity is equivalent to a provocation against Serbians. The existence of any group should never be legitimized as a provocation and groups with a history of genocide and crimes against humanity should never have their prejudices and horrifying conduct legitimized either. There is no equivalency here. One group is existing. The other is calling for their destruction. One should be celebrated. The other should be condemned. The unsportsmanlike conduct here comes not from Switzerland’s team but from Serbia and from FIFA for turning a game and a competition that celebrates different nationalities to a platform for hate.

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