Old feuds rear ugly head as Fifa mulls over sanctions

MOSCOW • The World Cup was thrust into the combustible mix of politics and football as a growing number of disciplinary proceedings and Mohamed Salah's threatened retirement brought several sensitive international flashpoints to the tournament's doorstep.

The crises touched on a range of topics: Kosovar independence, Serbian nationalism, a beloved Egyptian striker and the controversial Chechen president.

At least one of the disagreements could potentially force Fifa, world football's governing body, to issue suspensions during the tournament - possibly affecting which teams advance out of Group E.

On Sunday, Fifa announced that its disciplinary committee had opened three more proceedings related to Friday's testy Switzerland-Serbia match. Hours later, it emerged that one of the tournament's most popular players, Salah, was considering international retirement in the wake of his interactions with the Chechen.

Fifa's political problems began when Swiss players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri both made the double-eagle gesture with their hands to represent the Albanian flag after scoring in a 2-1 victory against Serbia. The duo have roots in Kosovo, an ethnically Albanian province that fought a war of independence against Serb-dominated Yugoslav forces in the late 1990s.

In Serbia, the gesture was viewed as a provocation. Serbia's football association faced its own disciplinary proceeding for a display of a political World War II-era banner by fans during their opener against Costa Rica.

And Fifa had to open three new inquiries: against Switzerland captain Stephan Lichtsteiner, who is not of Albanian descent, for making the double-eagle gesture, and against Serbia's football association president, Slavisa Kokeza, and coach Mladen Krstajic for statements they reportedly made.

Xhaka, Shaqiri and Lichtsteiner - three of Switzerland's best players - could each face a two-game ban if their celebrations are ruled political acts, and that could force them out of their group-stage finale against Costa Rica tomorrow.

By then, Salah might have played his last game for Egypt, after he was drawn into a political controversy related to his association's decision to live and train in Chechnya during the tournament.

On the eve of the tournament, photos emerged of Salah alongside Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed Chechen leader, at Egypt's first training session. After Egypt's defeat by Russia last Tuesday, he hosted a dinner for the squad at which he presented the star with honorary Chechen citizenship.

Salah, who has deliberately avoided political or religious links, is understood to be upset, believing he has not been offered suitable protection by the Egyptian Football Association.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2018, with the headline 'Old feuds rear ugly head as Fifa mulls over sanctions'. Print Edition | Subscribe