The World Cup audience was shocked when two Albanian players for the Swiss team celebrated goals against their Serbian rivals by twisting their fingers into the shape of the two-headed eagle emblazoned on their ethnic homeland’s flag, with this political intrusion into a strictly apolitical event violating the very spirit of the competition. The two players were fined but allowed to continue playing in the tournament, just like the Croatian player who joyously chanted a Nazi-era Ukrainian nationalist slogan shortly after his team beat Russia. Unlike the Albanians, though, he just got off with a warning, probably because he restricted his political activity to a locker room Instagram video and didn’t do it in front of the world’s eyes on the playing field.
All three players defended their actions and claimed that they did nothing wrong. The Albanians, one of whom provocatively posted on social media before the match against Serbia that he’d be wearing a picture of the so-called “Kosovo flag” on his cleats, said that their hand gestures were a message to their people, though completely ignoring the fact that this sign also represents the abominable crimes that Albanian separatist-terrorists committed in the Serbian Province. As for the Croatian, he used to play for a Kiev football team and brushed off all controversy about his quip as being nothing more than a “joke”, insultingly pretending not to understand why Russians would be offended by him shouting a slogan on their territory that was at one time used to encourage war crimes.
To the casual observer, this rude intrusion of regional politics into the global limelight might make some wonder what other ethnic hatreds abound in the Balkans, but the truth of the matter is that it’s mostly Albanians and Croats that are keeping such sentiments alive nowadays. The Serbs have been misportrayed for decades in the worst possible light, especially during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, but while there are always a few rotten apples in every bunch, proverbially speaking, the Serbian population by and large is much more tolerant than their two aforementioned neighbors, and this has a lot to do with historical reasons. Unbeknownst to many outside the region, the Albanians and Croats have a deplorable track record of genocidal collaboration with the fascists.
The Albanians saw World War II as an opportunity to fulfill their dream of a so-called “Greater Albania” through Axis support, which led to them being allowed to occupy parts of modern-day Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Suffice to say, this was a very dark period for those countries’ original inhabitants who were forced into servitude by their new masters. Something much worse happened in the lands of the so-called “Independent State of Croatia”, which implemented a genocidal policy of killing all minority groups in concentration camps such as Jasenovac, one of the most infamous in World War II. While the contemporary state of Croatia is a revival of the Nazi-era entity that created the first-ever Croat state, Albania predated that conflict but the geopolitical fulfillment of the concept of “Greater Albania” is indeed a fascist legacy.
The Russian Federation is globally renowned for its strong international condemnation of fascism all across the world and especially in the countries of Central & Eastern Europe, which is a natural position for it to take when considering that over 26 million of its citizens were slaughtered by the Nazi war machine, so it’s doubly offensive for those two Albanians and that one Croat to so casually express pro-fascist sentiments while competing in the country. Twisting one’s fingers into the shape of the Albanian eagle is akin to doing a Sieg Heil in the eyes of any Serb, just like hearing “Glory to Ukraine” is the same as stabbing a dagger in every Russians’ heart, and to have both of them happen in one tournament is a disturbing sign of just how acceptable those three offenders’ societies believe such statements to be.
If there’s anything “positive” that could be said to have emerged from these two scandals it’s that people are now more aware of the fascist-era historical hatreds that Albania and Croatia have kept alive for so long, which jars with the Mainstream Media-driven misportrayal of the Serbs as the instigators of regional tension. It’s important to note that the Serbian players and their fans were very respectful of their Russian hosts, probably partially due to their sense of an historically shared struggle, so there are no grounds for arguing that the Albanians and that one Croat were “provoked” into doing what they did. Instead, they carried out their actions with the intent of sending a clear political message no matter how meekly they tried to “plausibly deny” that this was the case.
The way forward is to encourage a more open and historically accurate conversation about Albania and Croatia’s roles in World War II in order to understand the origins of their fascist sympathies in the present day. Sometimes history does indeed repeat itself, as the world cringingly saw on full display during the World Cup, but the international community and especially the individuals in the offending societies need to recognize that it is not acceptable to glorify the fascist-era past, especially in a country that suffered so much from the brutal manifestation of that ideology. There is no excuse for gesturing an Albanian eagle or shouting “Glory to Ukraine” while in Russia, let alone when playing in the strictly apolitical World Cup, so hopefully important lessons can be learned from this regrettable experience, even if it’s unlikely that the culprits will ever sincerely repent.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.