(Disclaimer: I know nothing about soccer. There is a good chance that some of the information below lacks sufficient nuance and/or detail)
The Soccer Part:
A few weeks ago, Albania beat Armenia in a very important soccer (futbol) match held in my training city of Elbasan. The match was a qualifer for the Euro 2016 championship games that will be held next year (the Euro Championship is held every four years during the even-numbered year between World Cup championships). Albania has never qualified for the Euro championship, so the win was a very, very, very big deal for the home-country fans.
Because the Albanian flag is red and black with the image of an eagle, the team is known as “Kuq e Zinjte” (the Red and Blacks) and/or “Shqiponjat” (the Eagles).
During the run-up to the game, the Albanian National Team released a song called “Kuq e Zi Je Ti” (“Red and Black are You”) that quickly grew into an anthem that is now played on radio stations around the country. The song, which is quite catchy, never mentions soccer – it’s about national pride and pride in the Albanian flag. In the video, people are shown making the symbol of a double-headed eagle with their hands; this is a well-known, widely used hand motion – not specific just to the video.
The first stanza of the song translates as:
“It’s us, it’s us,
We come from our territory.
Nobody can separate us.
The Albanian Eagle flies,
Our land is calling,
The oaks and mountains
Because we are one nation
The chorus is:
“I am red and black, red and black,
Me and you are red and black.
We have you with all our heart today,
Oh the most beautiful flag in the world.
We have you with all our heart today,
Oh the most beautiful flag in the world”
The Greater Albania Part:
The lyrics of “Kuq e Zi…” refer to “Greater Albania,” and to “we are one nation.” Here’s what that means:
The map below shows how the population of ethnic Albanians goes beyond the borders of Albania and extends into Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and even part of Italy.
This is a remnant of the 1913 partitioning of the region when Albania as it now exists was created and groups of ethic Albanians were left outside its borders.
The largest group of Albanians partitioned out of the country are those in the Republic of Kosovo where 92% of the population is ethnic Albanian. Kosovo is of particular interest because it has been the source of ongoing conflict for decades. Until 2008, when it declared its independence, Kosovo was a possession of Serbia. In 1998-99, Slobodan Milosevec – then president of Serbia – engaged in large-scale “ethnic cleansing” of Albanians in Kosovo, eventually leading to NATO’s intervention. In 2008 Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, but Serbia still claims Kosovo as one of its “provinces” and refuses to recognize its independence
(Side note: Albanians LOVE America, in part because Woodrow Wilson stood up for Albania post-WW I and insisted that Albania was a country whose borders should stand and also because it was Bill Clinton’s efforts that led to NATO’s intervention against Slobodan Milosevec. Albanians are pretty lukewarm about Europe – they feel that Europe does not look out for its interests in the way that the U.S. does)
Meanwhile, back to “Greater Albania”….
“Greater Albania” is a political movement that aims to unify ethnic Albanians into one state. This is a very touchy topic because the Serbians claim Kosovo as their own and it is potentially destabilizing to the region to argue about borders. Many of the countries in the Balkan region are working toward entry into the European Union and the EU has made clear that destabilization in the region is a sign of lack of readiness for entry into the EU. Greater Albania is a populist movement, not an official stance of the Albanian government, yet Edi Rama, the Prime Minister, let slip a few weeks ago that “the unification of the Albanians of Albania and Kosovo is inevitable and unquestionable.” Needless to say, Serbia is not pleased. As for the EU, one write-up I read referred to Rama’s comment as “playing chicken with the EU.”
This entire post is about the fact that a cigar is not always just a cigar. The recent Albania-Armenia soccer game resulted in a nationalistic song about the flag, which is really about a century-old, highly emotional dispute about borders, which bumps up against modernization of the region. And I haven’t even mentioned (‘til now) the Albania-Serbia soccer game last October that ended in a virtual riot and is still a source of contention between Albania and Serbia. If you are interested, you can read about that here.