Kosovo, sovereignty and football

Foto: Toto Marti

Damiano Benzoni

Lucerne. The Swissporarena is filled with Albanian and Kosovar supporters, two times as much as the home team supporters, for the World Cup qualifier between Switzerland and Albania. Three players, the white cross of Switzerland on their chests, remain silent during the confederate anthem. One of them, Xherdan Shaqiri, has three flags embroidered on his shoes: Switzerland, Albania and Kosovo. Shaqiri himself will uneven the score in the 23rd minute of the game, won by the Swiss 2-0 and recounted on the New York Times by James Montague. Shaqiri and his two team-mates, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami, are among the 300 thousand Kosovar Albanians (a sixth of the population of the balcanic nation nowadays) who sought refuge in Switzerland during the nineties. For them, Switzerland – Albania is a particular match, played the day after their country reached full sovereignity. Moreover, the match was played as Kosovo waited for a crucial decision on behalf of the FIFA Executive Committee. Continue reading

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Fistfights, kicks and the Ukrainian elections

Damiano Benzoni

From Euro 2012 to the elections: the big event for Ukraine, after the Spaniards won their Kiev final against Italy, has become the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 28th. It will be a crucial election for the Verchovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, and it will be played between the danger for electoral fraud and the tug of war played by the West and Russia on the former Soviet republic. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, at a conference in Jalta last week both parts put Ukraine back up against the wall. On one hand, the EU and the US are asking for a clear acceleration of the stagnating democratic progress of the country and for a solution to the situation of former prime minister Julija Tymošenko, whose imprisonment is seen as a move masterminded by president Viktor Janukovyč to sideline a dangerous political opponent. On the other hand Moscow, leveraging on the high energy costs Ukraine has to face, is trying to force Kiev into joining the Eurasiatic Union. Continue reading

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Olympic refugees

Damiano Benzoni

During the Parade of Nations he had carried the flag of his country with pride in front of the London Olympic Stadium. Few, seeing him, could have imagined that one Sunday morning Weynay Ghebresilasie, the flag-bearer of Eritrea, would leave the Olympic village to seek asylum at the UK Border Agency. A steeplechase runner, Ghebresilasie is only the last of a list of athletes who disappeared from the Olympic village. And while the Georgian judoka Betkil Shuk’vani, whose story we already featured, ran away in order to get back to his own country, seven Cameroonians, three Sudanese, four Congolese, three Ivorians, three Guineans and three other Eritreans made the choice to disappear and leave their country. The Olympic permits released by the UK Border Agency to the athletes and their families won’t expire until November 8th: only after such date does their permanence on British soil become illegal. LOCOG, the Games’ organising committee, underlined that, not having any of the athletes infringed any law or rule, it isn’t entitled to take any kind of measure against them. Continue reading

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Georgian Dream and Shuk’vani’s nightmare

Damiano Benzoni

A loss in a judo bout, a flight from the window and unbearable political pressure: the story of the Georgian judoka Betkil Shuk’vani may be the most eventful and politicised of the whole London Olympics. It’s quite difficult to establish the truth about what happened, as the two contending parts have divergent versions: the facts tell the story of an athlete who disappeared from the Olympic village in London only to reappear a fortnight later in Tbilisi. In a press conference, Shuk’vani accused the most important members of the country’s Olympic delegation of intimidation and pressure caused by his political affiliation. He told he escaped the village in order to avoid beatings by a member of the Georgian ministry of Sport and Youth Policies. The story was given coverage by the Italian version of the Russian news agency Golos Rossii (Voice of Russia), by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and by the Georgian website Ambebi. Continue reading

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Under the shadow of five rings

Photo: David Byrd

Damiano Benzoni

They already got underway yesterday, with the football tournament, tomorrow they’ll be off to their official start: the Olympic Games of London 2012 will see more than ten thousand athletes from all over the world competing with each other. Two hundred and five flags will parade at the British capital’s Olympic Stadium, representing all the nations involved in the event. The parade is traditionally opened by the Greek delegation, which will be led by its flag-bearer Alexandros Nikolaidis, two-time Olympic silver, one-time European champion in taekwondo and first torch-carrier at the Beijing 2008 Games. The Olympic Committees will then parade one after the other in alphabetic order, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The Parade of Nations – as of tradition – is closed by the hosting delegation, and the last flag-bearer will be the Scottish track cyclist Chris Hoy, four Olympic golds. Between Iceland and India four athletes should parade without a national standard, walking behind the five rings of the Olympic flag instead. Continue reading

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Egypt behind closed doors

Damiano Benzoni

In the 79th minute Mohamed Aboutreika unevened the score: he rose up between two Zamalek defenders and headed the cross of his team-mate Abdallah el-Said, sending it behind the shoulders of the goalie Abdelwahed el-Sayed. Aboutreika scored the winner for al-Ahly in the Cairo derby, taking “the people’s team” on top of group B of the CAF Champions League and leaving Zamalek bottom of the pool, behind the Ghanaians of Berekum Chelsea and the Congolese of TP Mazembe. Strangely enough for one of the most heated derbies in the world, nobody was there to cheer, and Aboutreika’s goal was welcomed by a deafening silence: for the first time in a ninety-year history, the Egyptian derby was played behind closed doors, with only journalists, photographers, commentators and officials attending. Continue reading

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Chinese protectionism

Damiano Benzoni

Be the best forever: that is the motto on their crest – a tiger rising from the flames, its blades showing. “At all costs”, someone might be tempted to add, as the team we’re talking about – China Soccer League’s reigning champions Guǎngzhōu Evergrande, who have just secured Marcello Lippi as a manager – is doing anything possible in order to bend CSL rules and increase its domination on Chinese football. In June the team proposed boundaries on the number of foreign players for each team to be loosened. Such a proposal was accepted and ratified by the Zhōngguó Zúqiú Xiéhuì, the Chinese FA, in a formula seemingly devised on purpose to help Lippi’s team. Continue reading

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The derby which disappeared

Damiano Benzoni

“In full throat, they sing in praise of our slaughter: we’re up to our knees in Fenian blood”. This is how Franklin Foer, in his book How Football Explains the World, describes the Old Firm, the Glasgow derby between Celtic and Rangers. A derby which between 1996 and 2003, according to figures reported by Foer, caused eight deaths and scores of assaults. A derby that now seems destined to vanish as Rangers were not admitted to the next season of the Scottish Premier League on charges of debts totalling 94 million € towards Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The club had gone into administration on February 14th, with a ten-point penalty and the exclusion from next season’s European competitions, and liquidation started on June 14th. Rangers tried in vain to apply for the new SPL season with a new society, but the other clubs voted against: with ten votes out of twelve, the abstention of Kilmarnock meant the only vote in favour of such move was the vote of the Glaswegian protestants themselves. The new club will have to apply to the lower leagues, and may be forced to start from the fourth rung of the Scottish championship. Continue reading

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