Goal celebration or political statement? For Xhaka and Shaqiri, the eagle symbol was both

On Friday night the city centre of Pristina, Kosovo's capital city, pulsated to the rhythm of celebrating football fans. Kosovan flags and those of neighbouring Albania flew aloft; fireworks erupted, the streets were congested. But perhaps the most unusual aspect of the spectacle was that it took place in a country whose national team did not come close to qualifying for the World Cup.

They had been watching a gripping, emotional evening's drama take place in Kaliningrad, where football had, once again, been the medium that propelled a complex and long-standing enmity into the global consciousness. When Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri celebrated their goals for Switzerland against Serbia by making the Albanian "eagle" symbol, the news cycle was only going to move in one direction.

It was a reminder that, sometimes, sport has the capacity both to articulate sociopolitical tensions and bring them to a boil.

Xhaka and Shaqiri were fined 10,000 Swiss francs (around $10,000) apiece for their exhibition of what FIFA termed "unsporting behaviour", while their teammate Stephan Lichtsteiner was fined 5,000 francs for joining in the celebrations. If it seems a strong reaction to post-goal-scoring exuberance, the symbolism behind the gestures cannot be ignored.

There is a reason why, in Albania, a crowdfunding scheme had raised enough money to cover the players' costs within a day of their punishments being confirmed -- and a reason why the country's prime minister, Edi Rama, also set up an account called "Don't be afraid of the eagle" into which people could pay a "symbolic contribution" in support. The sense of injustice is strong, rooted in the contentious, deeply emotive subject of Kosovo.

When Kosovo declared independence in 2008 -- having been part of Serbia since the breakup of Yugoslavia -- it was defined as a victory for the ethnic Albanian population that these days makes up around 92 percent of its 1.9 million citizens. The country is now technically a partially recognised state, acknowledged by 111 of the United Nations members, and is enough of an international player to have been accepted by UEFA and FIFA, competing in World Cup qualifiers for the first time during the most recent campaign.

Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo. For Kosovo, every piece of acceptance onto the global stage is a landmark, an act of owning and then moving on from a troubled past. It is a process that extends far beyond those who live there.

Both Xhaka and Shaqiri were born to parents who left Kosovo during the late 1980s and early 1990s as political tensions grew; Xhaka's father, Ragip, was imprisoned for three months after demonstrating against the Yugoslavian government. Eventually a deteriorating situation brought attempts by Serbia to purge the ethnic Albanian population, an estimated 1.5 million of whom would be forced to leave their homes as a bloody independence war developed.

They dispersed around Europe and the rest of the world, meaning that a number of high-profile, modern-day footballers now count Albania, Kosovo or both as subjects of multiple allegiance. A number of the current Kosovo team were born in Switzerland, Belgium, Germany or Scandinavia; Kosovo had hoped to enlist players such as Shaqiri, Xhaka and Valon Behrami to their ranks at one stage, but FIFA ruled after they had represented the Swiss in Euro 2016 that it would not be possible. Whoever they played for, though, they knew all about the grim times their families had suffered, and the feelings run deep. During the war, everybody lost, as the barest minimum, something or somebody.

Xhaka's brother, Taulant, knows all about the way in which past horrors can lead to troubling scenes on the football pitch. Taulant plays his international football for Albania -- the Xhakas' parents were born in Albania and many footballers are technically able to represent them or Kosovo -- and was in Belgrade four years ago when, during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Serbia, all hell broke loose.

He was caught up in the skirmishes after a drone trailing a "Greater Albania" flag, showing a notional ethnic Albanian territory that included Kosovo, was lowered toward the Partizan Stadium pitch. It turned out that Ismail Morina, an Albania fan, had controlled it from a local churchyard, and the resulting chaos led to the match being abandoned. Such is the strength of feeling surrounding Kosovo on both sides that displaying this insignia to 30,000 Serbs was akin to lighting a flame over a leaking gas tap.

Provocations are nothing new in this rivalry, and the stitched Kosovan flag that Shaqiri wore on one of his boots during training was seen by some Serbs before Saturday's match had even kicked off. The "Eagle" celebration, harking to the bird depicted on the Albanian national standard, certainly carries nationalist connotations.

"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!" Rama wrote on his Facebook page. (Swiss players have said they won't make Albanian flag gestures again.)

The problem is that one man's harmless gesture is another's red rag to a bull. Nobody can be too surprised that Xhaka and Shaqiri were fined given the history that has already spilled out onto the field, but a more severe punishment may have set a dangerous standard.

"People here had mixed reactions to the fines," the Pristina-based journalist Arlind Sadiku told ESPN FC. "Some were happy that they weren't suspended for the next games and others said it was a very bad precedent from FIFA to deny players the chance to celebrate with the symbol of their own country."

In Belgrade, meanwhile, Serbian newspapers railed at the perceived laxity of the sanction, claiming that FIFA had "humiliated" them. The only sure thing is that, while Switzerland and Serbia play 260 miles apart on Wednesday night -- against Costa Rica and Brazil in Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow, respectively -- it sets up the final round of Group E fixtures in a way nobody could really have expected.

"People here call Switzerland the 'small Kosovo' at the World Cup," Sadiku said.

The defiance shown by Shaqiri and Xhaka against Serbia will ensure Pristina's bars and squares are pulsating again this evening.