Xherdan Shaqiri (31) exudes confidence ahead of the Serbia game.
Samuel Schumacherforeign reporter
The thing with the double-headed eagle is actually a huge misunderstanding, says Milos Jovic (38) over a beer after work in a hip Belgrade bar. «Have you ever looked at the Serbian flag? There is also a double-headed eagle on it, just like the Albanian one.»
Both countries would have put the East Roman imperial symbol on their flags as early as the 19th century. Serbia as well as Albania. So when Granit Xhaka (30) or Xherdan Shaqiri (31) run around on the football field and mime the double-headed eagle with their hands, then he’s happy as a Serb, says Jovic from Belgrade. “Anyone who mimics the double-headed eagle also indirectly shows us respect.”
It’s been four years since the two Swiss internationals with Kosovar-Albanian roots celebrated their goals with the double-headed eagle at the last World Cup match between Switzerland and Serbia. Fifa has issued warnings for the alleged nationalist provocation. The players appear purified. And yet: Most Serbs do not see the matter with the double-headed eagle quite as relaxed as Milos Jovic before today’s new edition of the World Cup duel between Switzerland and Serbia.
“Switzerland will have no reason to celebrate”
“It hurt what happened on the field in the last game,” says Iva Jevtic (21). Political gestures don’t belong on the field, says the young Belgrade sports journalist. “I hope the players have learned their lesson.”
We would never find out whether they really have that, Nikola Preocanin (35) exclaims outside in the cold, damp Belgrade pedestrian zone in the winter wind. «You Swiss will not score a goal against us. The world will never know exactly how your players would have cheered.” Serbia will win, then beat Portugal in the round of 16, “and then we’ll see,” says the Belgrade football fan. Finally, he expresses his displeasure that Switzerland is even allowing players of Albanian origin to play in their national team.
Such nationalistic views are not uncommon among Serbian football fans. The supporters of Red Star Belgrade in particular are said to be willing to be exploited by the Serbian government and abused for political campaigns. The wildest rumors have been circulating in Belgrade football circles about links between the Serbian government and the capital’s violent supporters.
Football ban for all Balkan peoples?
One should not believe all of this, says the Belgrade artist Jana Danilovic (33). Despite this, football has not brought her country much good so far. “The peoples of the Balkans should be banned from playing football for at least 50 years. They should first solve their real problems before they can kick a ball around again and only create new tensions, »says Danilovic.
She has just completed a new piece of street art: she has painted a huge industrial silo on the banks of the filthy Danube, one of Belgrade’s two city rivers. It shows a woman hugging the contaminated fish from the river. “We have enough real problems here that could be tackled,” says Danilovic.
For the time being, however, the round leather dominates the talk of the town in the Serbian metropolis. There are neither public viewings nor fan zones here either. In every café, no matter how chic, the World Cup games flicker on large screens. “The whole country is rooting for the new Serbian attacking football that has fascinated us,” said Vladimir Filipovic (33). Filipovic has been in charge of the sports department of “Blic”, the country’s largest news platform, for almost a year. Before that, the journalist took care of international political stories at “Blic”. So the perfect conversation partner before tonight’s politically charged World Cup game.
«The Swiss national team is like an army»
But Filipovic does not believe that the match between Switzerland and Serbia will degenerate again. “Half of our team belongs to Generation Z. They weren’t even born during the Kosovo war in the late 1990s. They have no interest in getting into these old disputes,” says Filipovic. In addition, Serbia has made huge progress under the new coach Dragan Stojkovic (57). “We now want to be happy about sporting successes instead of being distracted by the political background noise.”
But that would be difficult against Switzerland, says Filipovic. «Your team is like a small army: extremely compact, well networked, well organized. And Murat Yakin (48) has now given her an additional boost of motivation. It’s going to be a tough nut for us.”
Tonight at 10 p.m. we will know whether Serbia has cracked it or whether Switzerland will continue its World Cup high flight – with or without the double-headed eagle.