For Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, it was most definitely not another football match. Sure, it was at the World Cup where they represented their adopted nation, Switzerland.
Brazil in their opener was a stiff challenge, one which they came out of with a 1-1 draw with Valon Behrami, the third of the Swiss trio having a shared heritage, man-marking Neymar out of the game.
At the heart of this fixture was a 10,000 square kilometer area of land in the Balkan Peninsula, ravaged by years of war. Shaqiri, Xhaka and Behrami were Kosovar; 200,000 of them live in Switzerland today.
The 1998-99 war between ethnic Kosovo Albanian pro-independence and Serbian forces had seen most of these families, including those of Xhaka, Shaqiri and Behrami take refuge in Switzerland.
When the fixtures had been announced, both sides had fully expected the political ramifications of the conflict to headline the run-up to the match. Neither shied away from speaking about it.
“What if the coach of Kosovo wants me as the captain? Of course, I am thinking about it then,” Shaqiri had said prior to Euro 2016. In December after the draw was made, he was thinking about it, “Hmm, I like this draw.”
Serbia and Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matic expected a ‘hellish’ match from both sides. Aleksandar Mitrovic had taken it one step further. The big, burly striker point blank raised the question of why Shaqiri didn’t play for Kosovo, when asked about the Swiss midfielder’s choice of footwear.
Shaqiri’s father had been in prison for three years as a young man during the conflict for his protests, and the Stoke City man has never shied away from his allegiances, wearing the Swiss, Albanian and Kosovo flags on his boots.
Although Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 is backed by 113 United Nations members, Belgrade as well as ally Russia refused to accept it. Serbia fans took the goading one step further after their win over Costa Rica and Russia’s 3-1 win over Egypt when they chanted, “Kosovo je Srbija” (Kosovo is Serbia).
As it turned out, the pieces fell perfectly in place for a dramatic finale to the match. Serbia scored first, through none other than provocateur Mitrovic. The Newcastle striker has never been one to back down from expressing his feelings, on or off the pitch and fully channelled those into a bullet header from Dusan Tadic’s cross, one which left Yann Sommer stranded.
Tadic could have had another assist and Serbia another goal as his glorious dead-ball delivery from a corner found Matic who fluffed his lines when presented with an unmarked header.
The Swiss were feeling their way into the game and akin to the native cheese, were cut open once too many by the Serbs in the opening half hour. Steven Zuber, goal-scorer against Brazil responded by putting Blerim Dzemaili through on goal but the Hoffenheim man squandered what would be Switzerland’s best opportunity of the first half.
Serbia looked comfortable on their one-goal lead, as Switzerland lacked cohesion. Shaqiri drove forward and created but in front of goal, Haris Seferovic was having a shocker and it was no surprise when Mario Gavranovic was called upon to replace the Swiss striker.
The second half, went exactly how the Swiss and Shaqiri would have imagined it though. Knocking on the door with more urgency, Shaqiri’s shot fell to Xhaka of all people, who absolutely belted it.
The ball with a un-natural curl went away from keeper Vladimir Stojkovic in a fizz, as Xhaka will rarely have scored a more important or spectacular goal in his life, drawing the Swiss level. He celebrated with the Albanian symbol, the ‘Double Eagle’ as the Serbs were left unimpressed.
Breel Embolo was bought on, and Gavranovic immediately combined with him, testing Stojkovic but as fate would have it, Shaqiri would have the final word. With time running out and the clock creeping past 90, the diminutive attacker broke, sprinting forward and stroking the winner past Stojkovic, bringing joy to not just the entirety of Switzerland, but Kosovo and Albania as well. The Double Eagle was again on display.
Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic was less than pleased with the celebrations of his players, “You should never mix politics and football, it’s good to be a fan and important to show respect. It’s clear that emotions surface. I think on and off the pitch we need to steer away from politics in football and we should focus on this as a sport that brings people together.”
News flash, Mr Petkovic, but football has always been intrinsically linked with politics and conflicts. It has played a larger role in shaping society’s tendencies to react to discord through their representatives on the pitch. To deny the existence of the conflict or its influence on Shaqiri’s life, would be to deny the reason for his football, or indeed to deny him. Meanwhile, whoever writes these scripts could not have penned them in a more serendipitous way, and definitely deserves a pay rise.