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Soccer star Marko Arnautović made headlines last week, less for the goal he scored in the 89th minute of his native Austria’s European Cup game against North Macedonia than for his post-goal antics.

Soccer celebrations often mix joy and aggression. But it quickly became clear to television viewers that Arnautović, criticized as the “bad boy” of Austrian soccer, was moving further towards aggression than his teammates could tolerate. As Arnautović visibly berated North Macedonia’s left wing-back Ezgjan Alioski in Serbian, a language that both players know, Austrian team captain David Alaba intervened, grabbing his teammate by the cheeks to force him to stop speaking. Serbian speakers who analyzed video of the incident claim that Arnautović insulted Alioski’s mother with a commonly used regional profanity: he also used a derogatory epithet for “Albanian” in Serbian.

Later, Arnautović apologized via an English-language Instagram “story.” He stated that he is “not a racist” and that he has “friends in almost every country,” before writing the equivalent of “excuse me” in both Serbian and Albanian. Nevertheless, North Macedonia promptly requested that UEFA impose the strictest penalties in response; UEFA responded with a one-game suspension for the Austrian striker, who missed his team’s match against the Netherlands on Thursday, June 17.

UEFA’s decision to impose only a one-game suspension, the penalty for a generic “insult,” rather than the minimum 10-game suspension required by UEFA’s disciplinary regulations for insulting “the human dignity of a person or group of persons on whatever grounds, including skin color, race, religion, ethnic origin, gender or sexual orientation” means that UEFA did not accept North Macedonia’s allegation that Arnautović’s comments represented a racial or ethnic slur.

The charges of racism are complex, and hard for non-Europeans to parse. A photograph capturing Arnautović mid-scream, his mouth compressed by Alaba’s right hand, accompanied international headlines: the photo drew attention to accusations of racism in an iconography familiar to U.S. readers. Alaba is Black, and the photo calls to mind prevalent images of anti-Black racism for American and European audiences. Whereas Americans likely “see” race through the figure of Alaba, the photo obscures the power and relevance of European imperialist categories of difference beyond anti-Blackness. The history of racially-defined nationalism within Europe gives Arnautović’s provocation its power. But the ludicrousness of the incident also helps expose the centuries-old lie behind the notion that the ontological category of race has any real basis in ancestry.

Historians of Austria and the Balkans can’t help but note the irony of different parts of this story. The root of Arnautović’s surname is “Arnaut,” which means “Albanian.” Historically, the word was primarily used to describe Albanians serving in the Ottoman army—in other words, Muslims who spoke Albanian. Originally derived from Ottoman Turkish, Arnaut was absorbed into the Serbian language, which was standardized in the nineteenth century. The “-ović” at the end of the Arnaut surname indicates its Slavicization. Ottoman Muslims were at times required to Slavicize their surnames, but they also did so voluntarily.

In nineteenth-century Serbia, Arnaut was at times a derogatory label. More often, it was simply a way of distinguishing Albanians from the Slavic-speaking communities with whom they competed for land and political rights in the era of nationalizing states. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Arnautović surname belonged to some of the wealthiest Muslim landowners, including a prominent politician who fought for Muslims to be included as equal members of the Yugoslav nation alongside Serbs.

Does Marko Arnautović know what his last name means? Does he know when and why his family came to have it? Perhaps it does not matter: it would be a fool’s errand to speculate on how the Arnautović family came by their surname. By using an anti-Albanian taunt without ironic intention, Arnautović signaled both the crass behavior for which he is already known, but also, in some sense, his complete disregard for the antiquity of ancestral notions of race. His name is entangled in, and mirrors, complex layers of Balkan history, a region where political boundaries have shifted repeatedly over the past two hundred years, and where people have often held multiple, hybrid identities, just as both men involved in this incident do. Arnautović’s taunt makes race seem relevant; the complex family history that his name evokes, however, is itself a powerful symbol of the mutability of identity.

The European Cup pretends to pit nations against each other for sport, but it also highlights the ubiquity of hybrid identities that conflict with simplistic nationalist identification. Arnautović’s mother is Austrian, and his father Serbian — though at the time of the athlete’s birth in 1989, Serbia was part of Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, Alioski is both Albanian and Macedonian. A year before his birth in 1992, Alioski’s hometown was also located in Yugoslavia.

North Macedonia’s outrage about what they allege to be a “racist” incident, in which an Austrian with Serbian heritage and a surname that hints at an Albanian connection assailed an ethnic Albanian playing for North Macedonia, is ironic because Albanians have much to complain about in that country. Since North Macedonia’s independence in 1991, ethnic Albanians, who comprise at least 25% of the population and are predominantly Muslim, have experienced persistent discrimination and marginalization at the hands of the Slavic-speaking Orthodox Christian majority. They have organized insurgencies and rebelled several times in an attempt to achieve unification with Albania or Kosovo. And yet, in the European Cup, where passion and patriotism run high, a slur against an ethnic Albanian player is a slur against all of North Macedonia.

But in a broader sense, there is more at stake here than censuring racism. The European Cup claims to neatly categorize nations into teams, and individuals by nationality. It is no secret that this is utterly artificial. A dual citizen of Serbia and Austria, Marko Arnautović threatened to play for the Serbian national team instead of Austria in 2010, something that FIFA’s rules (which allow for players to switch teams between youth and adult levels, but not once they have committed to one nation’s adult team) would almost certainly have prohibited. In his professional life, Arnautovic is a forward for the Chinese Super League team Shanghai Port.

Alioski lives in England and plays for Leeds United. He was eligible to play for either Albania or North Macedonia; he chose the latter. Alaba, the captain who restrained Arnautović, was, like Arnautović, born in Vienna: his mother is from the Philippines, and his father is a prominent artist who immigrated from Nigeria, earned Austrian citizenship and served a mandatory term in the Austrian army. Germany’s national team goalkeeper once hoped a young Alaba could be recruited to accept German citizenship. These stories of migration and multiple complementary identities undergird FIFA’s claim that soccer stands against racism and for diversity. So, too, do European histories and laws concerning nationality and citizenship for Black and Muslim constituents. 

How, then, do we explain the power of Arnautović’s angry outburst? For the international press, it is simple: either trivialize it as the kind of “trash talk” that “is part of soccer,” as a representative of the Austrian Football Union did, or boil it down to contentious regional politics and angry Balkan nationalists.

But here caution is required: the trope that this kind of conflict is typical of south central Europe also emerged from European racist and imperialist ideologies. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Europeans finagled their way out of bungled treaties and the arbitrarily drawn political boundaries that contributed to regional conflict by leaning on the false notion of “ancient Balkan hatreds” instead of recognizing how their own disastrous international policy forced people to define themselves in new terms and abandon histories of hybrid identities and local social structures.

Those politics still live in bodies that are simultaneously ethnic and international. This story pits Arnautović, the Austro-Serb who plays in China, against Alioski, the Albano-Macedonian, who plays in England and reports that he speaks “German, Italian, English, Albanish, Macedonish, a little Spanish and French.” In this case, shared language became a tool for insult, not cooperation. And that language meant different things to the different people who used it, heard it, and publicized it.

Even hand gestures prove difficult to parse without reference to a specific cultural context. On social media, there is widespread speculation about whether Arnautović’s act of holding up 3 fingers was a celebratory reference to Austria’s third goal of the game, an obscenity (a Balkan middle finger as it were), a nationalist taunt (a reference to the alleged superiority of Orthodoxy and the holy trinity), or a symbol of white supremacy (à la 4chan).

Some, but not all, of these conversations might be productive. They reveal how much modern nationalism must forget about human movement, the fluidity of identity, and arbitrary political boundaries, in order to function as anything beyond a thin excuse for the organization of a soccer tournament.

Perhaps, then, the greatest irony on display in this incident is how the European Cup simultaneously celebrates national categories, and exposes the lie behind the entire idea of the nation itself.

Alison Frank Johnson is professor of History and chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.

Emily Greble teaches at Vanderbilt University and is the author of Muslims and the Making of Modern Europe, coming out this fall with Oxford University Press.