No Man’s Land: Navigating an increasingly political World Cup 2018

FIFA has gone to great lengths talking about the separation of football and politics, but World Cup 2018 has shown how closely the both are linked.
Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka's celebrations after their goals against Serbia clearly showed how deep-rooted political turmoil always finds a way to spill over into football. It might not reach YouTube reels, but this was one of the most poignant moments of World Cup 2018. Art by Charbak Dipta.
Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka’s celebrations after their goals against Serbia clearly showed how deep-rooted political turmoil always finds a way to spill over into football. It might not reach YouTube reels, but this was one of the most poignant moments of World Cup 2018. Art by Charbak Dipta.

Obscure Balkan studies professors are suddenly enjoying a World Cup-fueled surge in popularity thanks to Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri and their now infamous goal celebrations in Switzerland’s match against Serbia. Fans around the world were referencing the Battle of Kosovo, football twitter was on fire with with the hottest of hot takes about an incoming ban for the two Kosovar-Swiss midfielders, and the Serbian coach has called for the referee to be tried at the Hague. The competition was already straining under the weight of various narratives before Shaqiri raced through to score the winner for the Nati.

And through it all, FIFA would like to take this moment to remind you that the World Cup is not political.

Everything, however, at this tournament is political. Preview after preview featured the coldly menacing face of Vladimir Putin; in light of recent geopolitics, one American commentator half-jokingly refers to it as Rogue State 2018. The most iconic image so far this summer is not of Messi or Ronaldo, but FIFA president Gianni Infantino flanked in a luxury box by Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the opening match. But, again, the World Cup 2018 is not political.

Yes, yes, there was that photo shoot of Mohamed Salah and Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov (and the banquet… and the honorary Chechen citizenship…), but that is not political. Kadyrov just likes sport! Speaking of photo shoots, there was also the incident with Ilkay Gundogan and Mesut Ozill posing with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan before one of the most crucial elections in the country’s history. Not only did the snaps bring up questions of support for a regime with some, shall we say, “questionable” practices, it also riled a certain subset of Germans who felt these players shouldn’t focus on their Turkish heritage ahead of playing for Die Mannschaft. After all, that’s politics and not football.

This division of these two subjects was repeated often in the lead up to Switzerland-Serbia. The Swiss starting lineup featured three players – Xhaka, Shaqiri, and Valon Behrami – of Kosovar extraction. None are particularly shy about their heritage. Xhaka has given multiple interviews sharing how his father was a political prisoner and Behrami is keen to show off his Albanian eagle tattoo on his right leg when he gets the opportunity. Shaqiri was recently featured in the Players Tribune telling how he has the flags of both Switzerland and Kosovo on his boots. “Not because of politics or anything like that. But because the flags tell the story of my life.” The story of his life, however, is extremely political: his family fleeing from his homeland, settling in a new country, and living as an outsider in his adopted home.

The more everyone kept denying the political ramifications, the more obvious they became. It is like a defender when he clearly has hacked down his opponent then puts his hands up in the air to say, “Nah, ref! Never touched him!” This, combined with the Serbian foreign minister’s remarks after the Costa Rica match about how sweet it was to beat one of the first nations to recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, ensured the national team fielded a number of questions on the subject. Most of them were batted away easily with vague statements about how this is football and not politics. Ninety minutes, three goals, one penalty shout, and two double-headed eagle celebrations later, that all went out the window.

The head of the Serbian FA railed, “It is clear to Europe and the world that Serbia was brutally robbed. I do not expect FIFA to take action in order for this brutal robbery not to happen again, because, I repeat, it was all directed.” The fix was in and anti-Serbian bias has come to the fore yet again, he argued. Serbia’s coach, Mladen Krstajic made a particularly political comment: “I wouldn’t give [the referee] either a yellow or red card, I would send him to The Hague. Then they could put him on trial, like they did to us.”

Serbia has already fallen afoul of FIFA’s “no politics” dictum this summer. The FA was fined after its first match when fans showed up with banners declaring “Kosovo is Serbia.” So, when the fines were handed out on Monday, Serbia was seen as a repeat offender and sanctioned accordingly. Shaqiri and Xhaka were lucky to only be fined rather than suspended for Switzerland’s final game. Serbians were furious. The eagle celebrations were clear violations of article 54 of FIFA’s disciplinary code which should have resulted in a two match ban. Such a slap on the wrist, they asserted, was an indicator of the anti-Serbian bias that pervades every international body. After all, it was the Swiss players that decided to bring politics into this. That argument, however, would hold more water if Serbian fans had not shown up wearing hoodies featuring the face of Ratko Mladic, the “Butcher of Bosnia.” This is all starting to sound like it might be about more than football…

The American statesman James Madison wrote government was “the greatest of all reflections on human nature.” Government can wound and heal, calm and enrage, build up and tear down. Football can do the same. As arbiters of the sport and its greatest tournament, FIFA has spent far too much energy insisting politics are separate from the game rather than harnessing its power to ennoble the participants and viewers.

The situation reminds me of the Danis Tanovic’s film No Man’s Land. The action takes place during the Bosnian War and two opposing combatants are trapped together in a trench along with another wounded soldier who is unable to move without setting off a land-mine which would kill them all. The film turns into a savage satire as the situation gets picked up by the media, and the UN commander must hide his force’s inability to address the situation in any sort of meaningful way. It ends with the media packing up and moving on after capturing the tragedy while the wounded soldier is left sitting on top of a literal powder keg waiting to go off.

FIFA essentially punted on this issue, hoping we will all move on and not look at anything too closely. The Serbians will have the longest memories, but their early exit means we won’t hear too much more from them. Neymar will score a goal or Suarez will fall down ridiculously, and we will forget all about this nasty political business. This is World Cup 2018, and that sort of thing has no place here, right?