Perspectives | Sports

Footballers choosing their identity is not treason

By - 06.10.2016

Albanians of Switzerland have a right to self-identify.

The recognition of Kosovo by UEFA and FIFA this year directed attention onto the professional players from the Albanian diaspora who play for other national teams. Excluding a few individual cases, most of the players are able to change their national team in order to play for Kosovo in the World Cup 2018 qualifiers. In this debate, special attention has been given to Switzerland’s players who have origins in Kosovo. The discourse in Kosovo has been quite harsh regarding their potential rejection of Kosovo’s national football team: Those who have done so have immediately been labelled ‘traitors,’ and treated as such by the discourse in Kosovo.

Whenever the word ‘traitor’ is used to refer to Switzerland’s Albanian players in this debate, the discourse is intentionally focused on only one narrative, based on one supposedly inalienable truth: that Albanians of the diaspora must play for Kosovo, or even Albania, and that in refusing to do so they betray their nation, origins and blood.

When a person only reads, listens to and observes their own social circles or media, they only see one representation; specifically, that this narrative is an absolute truth. Therefore, people can easily label players from the diaspora as ‘traitors,’ and just as easily insult and condemn them. But why are players with Albanian origins not swayed by this supposedly persuasive historical narrative? Why did they decide to be ‘traitors’?

Albanians are a fairly homogenous people. From birth, they are taught a century-long history of resistance, similar to many other national histories around the world. Albanian history is self-affirming and self-suffering; and in it, the feats and achievements, and wars and injustices inflicted upon the Albanian nation, are highlighted. Because historically Albanians have at times been repressed and subjected to forced assimilation, the preservation of the Albanian identity and culture, has become a source of pride: As the popular football chant goes, “What’s better than being Albanian?!”

Everyone has a right to choose and no one is a traitor.

However, people like Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Valon Behrami were not brought up in this same homogenous environment, and the history they learned was not based on Albanian nationalism. They were brought up in a completely different environment, in which they were a minority, and in which prejudices existed — and still do, to an extent — towards Albanians, and refugees from former Yugoslavia in general. They were brought up as Albanians of Switzerland, and so Granit and Xherdan identify more readily with Albanians from Switzerland than with Albanians from Kosovo. It is quite difficult for Albanians from Switzerland to be successful as second generation migrants, because they simply do not have the capital, social networks in their communities and knowledge of the system that the locals have.

These Albanians of Switzerland are quite aware that they are Swiss, but also Albanian. However, Switzerland is still the place where they were brought up and where they have spent most of their lives. On the other hand, playing for Switzerland, and having the Swiss nation applaud Albanians wearing Swiss jerseys, says much about the integration of Albanians into Swiss society, strengthening the image of their position within Switzerland.

For Albanians who were born and raised in Kosovo, people of the diaspora are thought of only as Kosovar Albanians who are working and earning money elsewhere, and sending remittances back to the homeland, rather than as people who are actually living in another country. Rarely, if ever, do people here speak of integration, and they sing and write about gurbet — a sense of separation from one’s homeland as a forced intellectual or economic migration, displacement or exile. Although it is true that their migration was forced due to the war, perhaps remaining part of the diaspora is also unavoidable, as they would not have financial security if they were to return to the homeland — and this should be the most worrisome issue. But, for someone in Kosovo, used to the idea that blood is the most important thing, it is incomprehensible and unimaginable that Xhaka and Shaqiri can, with sufficient reason, see Switzerland as their own country.

In Albanian discourse, identity is rarely treated and understood as a social construct; ethnic identity is seen as irreplaceable. This concept of ethnic identity cannot explain how one’s country and social circle can contribute to one’s identity, or that a person is not born Albanian, but rather forms an identity throughout their development — through family, community, social networks, country, or even nation. And if these characteristics do not reinforce one another, but are cross-cutting, then a person’s identity becomes more fluid. In this way, many Albanians from Kosovo have overlapping identities and see themselves as both Albanian and Kosovar.

Xherdan’s fluid identity is demonstrated by his boots, which sport the flags of Switzerland, Kosovo and Albania. However, Xherdan cannot play for three national teams simultaneously, and must decide on only one — and he is playing for Switzerland. Sinan Bytyqi, on the other hand, left Austria to play for Kosovo, while players like Lorik Cana, an Albanian from Kosovo, stay true to Albania.

Everyone has a right to choose and no one is a traitor. Each will make personal calculations as to which national team is initially accessible to them, and which is more important in terms of representation; they could also be pragmatic calculations. After all, this is equality at its finest: Players can choose their own identity, with which they wish to represent their national team.

When you blindly believe that ethnic identity comes before all other identities, you get slapped in the face when players with Albanian origins choose a different representation.

However, the other side of the coin — an argument ignored in Albanian discourse — is the integration of Albanians in other countries. For the far right in Switzerland, the ‘desertion’ of Kosovar Albanians from the national team would legitimize their claim that Albanians from Switzerland — and migrants in general — cannot integrate and are not loyal to the Swiss state. Such an act would undoubtedly incite hatred towards Albanians in Switzerland, and the growth of anti-Albanian sentiment would negatively affect Albanians’ access to sport, work and education, and the overall integration of Albanians in Switzerland. It would contribute to the image of Albanians as only using Switzerland for money, and not having any interest in identifying with Switzerland as a country. Switzerland would see the departure of Albanians as treason, because Swiss football schools made those players what they are, and today those same players would be seen to be condemning this hospitable country by staying true to their country of origin. On the other hand, when Albanians from Switzerland see the whole Swiss nation applaud players like Xherdan, Granit and Valon, they feel like Albanians of Switzerland, because their presence in the national team also symbolizes their road to integration in Swiss society — a society comprising a considerable number of Albanians.

The movement of people to other countries for economic reasons, or because of persecution or natural disasters, leads to second and third generation migrants. Expecting every generation to represent their country of origin means believing that blood and origins are the only things upon which an identity is built. Without a doubt, for many people of the Balkans — including many Albanians and Serbs — ethnicity is the axis of identity. But when you blindly believe that ethnic identity comes before all other identities, you get slapped in the face when players with Albanian origins choose a different representation.

Those who believe unconditionally in ethnic identity also believe that Granit and Xherdan cannot decide for themselves, and in fact do not have the right to decide for themselves; their ethnicity was decided at birth, and that determines who they should play for. However, throughout history, through migration and contact with different cultures, and despite the fact that conflicts have arisen, there have been many examples of friendly relations between different peoples, individuals and countries. With permanent migration and the naturalization of citizens in host countries, new identities have been developed — ones characterized by second and third generation migrants seeing their host country not as foreign, but as their home, and being brought up as such. Thus they have two homelands: their own, and that of their parents. This shows how perspectives on statehood and identity have changed.

If we believe in identity as a social construct, then it is acceptable to give an individual the right to self-identify. If Switzerland were to construct identity as ethnic, then it would not exist as a state, because of differences in language: German, French, Italian and Romani, respectively. But even if they were to construct identity based on these four ethnicities and languages, anyone falling outside these parameters would be seen as a foreigner and would face discrimination in the workplace, in education and in other spheres of life.

As such, our ethno-centric narrative is dangerous in diverse places like Switzerland, but also in mostly homogenous places like Kosovo, precisely because it is imposed, absolute and excluding, and does not take into account other perspectives. When someone like Granit Xhaka makes a decision — and a legitimate one — to play for Switzerland, we insult him and his family precisely because we have created a discourse of absolutes, one that does not take into account other narratives; and when they are manifested, they are ignored or insulted.

Today in Europe and the U.S. the growth of right-wing extremism, with nativist rhetoric that has ethno-centric elements, is being used by many politicians. The people who are harmed the most by this nativist rhetoric and the belief that ethnicity is the cornerstone of identity are migrants, and if we as Albanians further such rhetoric, then we damage the very position of the Albanian diaspora in their respective countries by contributing indirectly to their marginalization, rather than their integration.

However, in choosing between Kosovo and Switzerland, there are two prevailing narratives: one, that you must represent the country formed through the sacrifices of many people through many years, and that the representation of Kosovo is without a doubt a history in itself; and another, that you must stay true to the country in which you live and grew up, and which, by offering infrastructure, made you.

Both narratives are compelling, and whichever is chosen by the players is chosen for sound reasons. In Albanian discourse, we must learn not to completely reject the second narrative as invalid, because such an act would bring about the alienation of the Albanian diaspora, an important part of the Albanian population.