This has resulted in UEFA putting locks in place every time it displays qualifying groups for the European Championships or the World Cup by chance. For example, when heading to Qatar 2022, it was impossible for up to six team pairs (such as Russia and Ukraine or Kosovo and Serbia) to participate in a qualifying sector. The measure emerged towards Euro 2008, when Armenia and Azerbaijan had to face each other, and resulted in the Games being suspended due to the war between these former Soviet republics over the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh.
One way of assuming the limits of the sport is to prevent certain competitors from playing. It means a clear acknowledgment that sport has failed: when no space can be shared, there is no room for coexistence or, therefore, a peaceful solution.
Football player Murphy’s Law, we can name it, and precedents abound. Exactly when the first split occurred in world communism, the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz “Tito .” split“ and Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin, these teams faced a severe grudge at the 1952 Olympics, with each team pressed by their boss to win as it was.
Or, weeks after Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary, these nations clashed for the 1956 Melbourne water polo medal, a violent match dubbed the “Blood Pool Game.” Or when the second round of the CONCACAF tournament was held in the 1970 World Cup, fate found that Honduras and El Salvador would face each other, already divided by deep hatred. What happened on the field ignited such an explosive mixture and detonated the so-called “football war” or “the Hundred Hours’ War”: 6000 dead, 20,000 wounded, thousands homeless.
However, there were instances where conflict was not seen to come. Looking at Russia 2018, I left Serbia and Switzerland together. Among this latter country, its chief characteristic is neutrality and it seems intricate that any choice or hobby should have any previous disagreement with it.
But when Yugoslavia split into six parts, following the war in the late 1990s between Serbia and Montenegro and the Kosovo Albanian rebel group, the latter was retained as part of Serbia. Serbs have always insisted that Kosovo is the cradle of their homeland, even though the majority of Kosovarians at that time were already Albanians.
Many of these Albanians were returning to their ancestral land, expelled by the Serbs at the end of the 19th century. In that war there was ethnic hatred, religious persecution and repression against the Kosovar population at the hands of the then Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic. Until the intervention of NATO, in 1998, would lead to the independence of Kosovo. Serbia refused that independence, with the support of its biggest ally and protector, Russia.
On June 22, 2018, at the Baltica Arena in Kaliningrad, there was a stubbornness of the stars to create a very tense duel. Absent from the World Cup, Kosovo was unable to qualify in its first encounter as a FIFA recognized team. But Serbia would have found itself as close as possible to the image of Kosovo: a multicultural Switzerland made up of Nigerians, Cameroonians, Chileans, Bosnians … and as many as four members from Kosovo or Albania.
Serbia had nothing clear against Switzerland, although it did face Albania, which shares ethnicity, culture, and language with Kosovo. Before the match in Kaliningrad, then Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic called the previous victory over Costa Rica an act of revenge, recalling that the Costa Rican government was among the first to recognize Kosovo’s independence. That night, Serbian fans displayed pictures of Ratko Mladic, a Serbian soldier convicted of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, in the stands.
When the match arrived, Granit Xhaka, the son of a Kosovar separatist who had been imprisoned, scored the first Swiss goal. Added to this is the second goal, another Swiss action from Kosovo, Xherdan Shaqiri, whose shoes the Serbian Federation tried to ban due to the raising of the Kosovo flag. In celebration of the two goals, Shaka and Shaqiri ran as if possessed, making the mark of the Albanian eagle with their hands.
A few days ago, in the Qatar 2022 World Cup draw, it happened that Switzerland and Serbia would be in the group again. For more surprise, as it was four years ago, Brazil accompanied them: three groups linked to fate.
Sport has demonstrated on numerous occasions its healing power, its unique role in bringing those who fight together, and its diplomatic skills. China and the United States improved their relationship in the 1970s with a few table tennis matches. Côte d’Ivoire put an end to its civil war thanks to the pacification of striker Didier Drogba by qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. Nelson Mandela avoided the promised post-apartheid conflict by using South Africa’s coronation in the 1995 Rugby World Cup to reconcile a divided population.
As Poland’s Lech Walesa, the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, explained to me in an interview, we like life to happen as it does in sport: to compete under equal rules and to be accepted by each competitor in advance. At the same time, if we do not allow those who have a grudge to play together, we close the door to their coexistence and coexistence. The shortest path to respect is to see each other as equals and to listen to each other. Those who do not have the ability to safely contest the ball, let alone the ability to match in any area off the field.
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However, football cannot escape from what is actually happening. Political tension in the playing field is rarely invented. Instead, it ends up displaying, and sometimes, exponentially. For this reason, more attention is needed to political expressions on the field, such as those expected in the aforementioned ceremonies, though non-political sports scream in vain. It was not and will not be, like every manifestation of humanity.
For now, what FIFA didn’t want it to: Shaqiri and Xhaka, the Eagles with Switzerland, the “other Kosovar team”, would face Serbia again in the World Cup.