Trust in the game: How sports can improve Serb–Albanian relations

Serbia came to Albania, played football, won the game, and earned the applause of Albanians, the victims of Serbian racism and violence in the wars of last century and the Belgrade stadium last year. The indigenous people showed the virtues of the European civilization they helped erect. The visitors showed they’re a good sports team, even though they have failed to qualify for Euro 2016. Now Albania has to win away against Armenia this Sunday to make it to the final tournament in France.

That’s a repost here. It’s what I typed on my Facebook timeline right after the match. Then I thought again: this was the first real game the two nations have played.

And that sparks hope, however little, that things may get better between and for Albanians and Serbs. With talent so abundant, the two countries could’ve been the top teams in the group today. But politics got on the way: Serbia ignored football, and Albanians were denied the game.

In our region of a troubled past, we can learn to do things right. And when everyone does their job right, Plato said, there will be justice. But to focus on one’s job, one needs trust that the other will do theirs.

We, Albanians, didn’t trust the Serbs. Today the Serbian team promised it’d play football with fair-play. We promised hospitality (despite the hell Serbs gave us last year when the game was abandoned). This time, both sides came through. In other words, we found something in common.

During centuries of a tumultuous relationship between the two nations, Albanians hardly said they were better than Serbs, except for when it came to besa — the given word, the word of honor, or one’s faithfulness and truthfulness to another. The besa of an Albanian was strong. That of a Serb was said to be watery.

The Albanians, who took great pride in fulfilling their promises, felt repeatedly betrayed by their neighbors. Besa was one of the fundamental principles of Albania’s customary law, along with personal honor (or dignity), equality, and individual freedom.

Serbia took pride in what it called “the national interest,” a vague term that primarily concerned the resurrection of a medieval empire.

To this goal, Serbs were encouraged to betray others: writer and president Dobrica Čosić said it was noble for a Serb to lie. Supporters dubbed him Father of the Nation. Serbia revived its old plans to conquer the region and annihilate non-Serbs. The nation started wars on many fronts, killed hundreds of thousands, and ethnically cleansed large chunks of lands, but lost at the end.

Needless to say, wars distracted Serbia’s athletes. In the 1990s, the country was briefly barred from international competitions, because of the aggression against Croatia and Bosnia. At the same time, the Albanian majority in Serbian-occupied Kosova was barred from all sports facilities throughout the decade. (I have my own childhood memories to share.)

That is what I mean when I say: Serbia ignored football, and Albanians were denied the game. And that’s also why I say, today the two nations played their first real game.

Today the besa of a Serb was good. That’s an ethnocentric way to put it, but a conveniently right way.

Because no matter how untranslatable a word besa remains, it goes beyond the Albanian tradition; it is a universal value, the bedrock of civilization, and an innate law of all humankind. Serbs don’t have to learn besa from us, or give it our name.

Call it rule of law, civility, sanctity of the social contract — call it whatever! But the Serbian state needs it.

In the 1800s, Serbia became the first Balkan country to free itself from Ottoman rule and the second (after Greece) to enact a modern constitution. The small state began to dream big, eyed lands to grab and nations to subdue.

Belgrade was to lead a region worthy of a mission civilisatrice. The problem was, Belgrade barely stood ahead of its neighbors. Most importantly, the state lacked the value of it, and Serbian leaders singlehandedly silenced anyone who called for it. At all times, Serbia was no more than Russia’s pawn on a chessboard of imperial desires.

Something went wrong at some point in history. A sad stumbling in the past pulled off a chain of events that screwed us up to now. My point here isn’t to identify what mishaps traversed, and we might never find out. But bad things shouldn’t last.

Today’s event was an inspiring start. We could go far.

But if only Serbia’s politicians did their job right, the way its football players played football? If only they sought Serbia’s own dreams, not Moscow’s? If only they recognized Kosova as an independent state and made good on their promises for peace and neighborliness after all?

Thus far, they’ve shamelessly declined to do so. They say they can’t betray their country.

They must love their country. But as Ismail Kadare once said, they must love it the right way!

Hence if only Serbia’s politicians loved Serbia the right way? And if Albania’s politicians loved Albania the right way? And if Kosova’s politicians loved Kosova the right way?

I wasn’t going to leave the Albanians out, or give them a free pass because of sufferings of the past. They must be good neighbors. They must always adhere to the principles of their ancient law: dignity, equality, freedom, and besa! And they must learn from anyone, too, for they’re not immune to derailment in life.

But to this day, the Serbian nation has done many wrongs. Albanians were victims of Serbian aggression, and unlike their neighbors, generally discouraged malice towards other folks. Serbia has itself to blame. It’s brought vagrants to the throne, enslaved the righteous citizens, and shamed the courageous ones.

This shouldn’t happen in a democracy. So let’s turn this around now!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *