Albania's leader opens account for Swiss players' FIFA fines

Switzerland's Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the group E match between Switzerland and Serbia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kaliningrad Stadium in Kaliningrad, Russia, Friday, June 22, 2018. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP)

TIRANA, Albania — The prime minister of Albania opened a bank account on Tuesday to allow his country's people to offer their "symbolic contribution" to pay the fines levied against two Swiss soccer players of Albanian origin.

The account, named "Don't Be Afraid of the Eagle," was opened at Raiffeisen Bank by Prime Minister Edi Rama, who urged 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 at the World Cup. 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.

Separately, an ethnic Albanian living in New York launched a fundraising page at gofundme for the two sportsmen and Switzerland captain Stephan Lichtsteiner, who was fined 5,000 Swiss francs ($5,050).

In less than a day it had collected more than $19,000 of the $25,000 goal.

"If the Swiss Football Association does not accept the funds raised, we will gladly donate all the money to a charity of their choosing," the page states.

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.

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Follow Llazar Semini on Twitter https://twitter.com/lsemini

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