TIRANA: Albania’s prime minister opened a bank account on Tuesday allowing his brethren to offer their “symbolic contribution” to pay the fines levied by FIFA against two Swiss players of Albanian origin.
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Eagle” is the name of the account opened at Raiffeisen Bank by Prime Minister Edi Rama urging Albanians “to pay FIFA’s absurd fine on Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri.”
Xhaka and Shaqiri made hand gestures that mimicked Albania’s national symbol, a two-headed eagle, after scoring goals during Switzerland’s win over Serbia. The players have ethnic Albanian heritage linked to Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia doesn’t recognize that independence.
FIFA fined the players 10,000 Swiss francs ($10,100) each for unsporting behavior. Soccer’s governing body had the power to impose two-match bans if Xhaka and Shaqiri’s actions were judged to have provoked the general public.
Erion Veliaj, mayor of Albania’s capital Tirana, also criticized FIFA’s decision in a tweet.
“The eagle sign — like a high-five or a thumbs-up — is one of celebration among albanians, a.k.a. from the Land of Eagles!” Veliaj wrote.
He posted a photo of himself and Rita Ora, a British singer of ethnic Albanian origin from Kosovo, making the eagle gesture together.
“Whether a singer like @RitaOra or footballer like @XS_11official it’s a call for joy, not conflict,” Veliaj wrote.
Rama wrote on his Facebook page that the bank account was a gesture of “thanks and gratitude to the two sportsmen” who brought joy to millions of Albanians.
Though Xhaka and Shaqiri play for Switzerland, Albanians celebrated the 2-1 victory over Serbia as if it were their own. Big screens were set up in public squares to follow the match.
Ethnic rivalries remain in the Western Balkans, once considered a “powder keg,” though the last bloodshed ended 19 years ago after NATO conducted a 78-day airstrike campaign against Serbia to stop a bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanians.