World Cup 2018: When Nationalist Politics and Sports Collide

Damir Kulas on the dangers of mixing nationalism and football


In 2015, the satirical Montenegrin musician Rambo Amadeus claimed nationalism was the main topic of conversation for those in the Balkans who earn between 300 and 500 euros per month. Once individuals began to earn more, their conversations shifted to discussions about clothes, cafes, healthy eating, vacations, weather forecasts and love. Because most people in the Balkans fall into that first bracket (coupled with high unemployment rates), nationalism dominates much of the region’s discourse, Amadeus explained.

While such a contention is not entirely accurate, there is an underlining element of truth in his words, given the political context in which the south-eastern region of Europe finds itself today. Nationalism has become ingrained in the political fabric of the successor states of former Yugoslavia. Nationalist parties exert considerable influence over their respective populations. Thus, it should not come as much of a surprise that events in the World Cup game between Serbia and Switzerland provoked a nationalist shitstorm, both in the Balkans and among its vast diaspora around the globe.

The use of the Albanian double-headed eagle hand gesture by Swiss goal-scorers Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, the chants and displays of Serbian fans in Kaliningrad and beyond, and the subsequent post-game comments by Serbia coach Mladen Krstajić suggesting that a referee be tried at the Hague have dampened the carnival-like atmosphere across much of Russia. Over the last few days, numerous pieces of analysis have been written with the aim to educate those unfamiliar with the turbulent political history of the region, and to pass judgment on the protagonists and the likely consequences that should follow.

Questions as to whether Xhaka, Shaqiri, Krstajić and the Serbian FA should be punished for the fiasco that tainted FIFA’s showpiece event are now in the hands of football’s governing body. But this tribalism is dangerous if we hope to avoid a repetition of history, in which conflict and displacement affect the region every few generations. It preserves antagonism between Republics that should be co-operating towards building a better future.

Almost 20 years have passed since the Kosovo War, and the subsequent NATO bombing which culminated in the ending of armed hostilities in the former Yugoslavia. Yet those born after the conflicts are formulating nationalist sentiments and hatreds eclipsing those of their elders who lived through those times. Sportsmen, like politicians, have considerable influence over those born after the fighting, who are seeking to develop their own understandings of past events and their place within them.

It is imperative that younger generations are aware that while both the Albanian-eagle hand gesture and the Serbian three-fingered salute have been used to convey positive expressions of national and religious pride, they have also been used in the pursuit of nationalistic ideals that have involved the killing and displacement of neighbouring ethnic groups. The same extends to the use of the patriotic war song “Bojna Čavoglave” by Thompson, which Croatian stars Dejan Lovren and Šime Vrsaljko sang in the aftermath of the Vatreni’s 3-0 annihilation of Argentina last week.

While the lyrics of the song depict Croatian heroism in the face of an enemy offensive, they also have fascist connotations and reference conquests dating back to the Uštaše regime of World War II. They can also be used to express positive sentiments of national pride, but are also invoked to justify policies of ethnic exclusion that are hallmarks of far-right political parties in Croatia and certain areas of Herzegovina.

Ethno-nationalist rhetoric is employed by politicians to score cheap political points, and citizens in turn tolerate and actively replicate such partisan behaviour. Though the Balkans remain one of the most underprivileged parts of Europe, it seems many decision-makers in the region are more preoccupied with the re-writing of past injustices and upholding the virtues stemming from nationalist “victories” than with creating more sustainable tomorrows that might stop the brain drain from their motherlands.

The tragedy of all this is that history tends to repeat itself. While there is no collective duty to ensure the deaths of past conflicts are not repeated, the role of sport in all this should be to bridge divisions, and to see to it that sport is not hijacked by those with darker motives to further fragment society and exacerbate nationalist tensions. Whether it actually does is an entirely different story.


Cover photo credit: Gustave Deghilage/flickr/some rights reserved



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Damir Kulas

Damir is a Politics and Law student at Monash University in Melbourne who was born in Sarajevo but hails from the city of Konjic in Herzegovina.