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Switzerland beats Serbia in a game tinged with history and politics
[KALININGRAD, Russia] It was Xherdan Shaqiri's right boot that made the headlines before his match on Friday, but it was his left boot, and his hands, that were the story after the game ended.
Shaqiri's 90th-minute goal in a 2-1 victory against Serbia was the final act of a pulsating match. It was also a game dominated by questions of identity and belonging, of war and peace. Three members of Switzerland's starting lineup, including both of its goal scorers on Friday, were born in, or have roots, in Kosovo, an ethnically Albanian province that fought a war of independence against Serb-dominated Yugoslav forces in the late 1990s.
Shaqiri had never shied away from his roots. Before the World Cup, he posted a photo on his Instagram account showing the boots he would wear for the tournament. On the left boot's heel was the flag of Switzerland. On the right, the flag of Kosovo.
So after Shaqiri broke free of Serbia's offside trap in the final minutes of the game and slid the ball with his left boot, his Swiss boot, under the onrushing Serbia goalkeeper, Vladimir Stojkovic, he peeled away and made a two-handed eagle gesture with his fingers. It is a nationalistic sign that many with ethnic Albanian roots make — Granit Xhaka made it after he scored Switzerland's first goal earlier in the second half — to mimic the black eagle in Albania's flag.
Asked about the gesture after the game, Shaqiri said: "In football you have emotions. You can see what I did. It was just emotion.''
The biggest impact of Shaqiri's late goal was to tighten the race for the top two spots in Group E, which brings advancement to the Round of 16. Brazil, which beat Costa Rica earlier in the day, and Switzerland each have four points and Serbia has three, making the final day of group play on Wednesday a notably dramatic one. Serbia and Brazil will square off in Moscow at the same time that Costa Rica and Switzerland meet in Nizhny Novgorod.
As Serbia and Switzerland battled on the field Friday, the connections to the past were everywhere you looked. Shaqiri and Valon Behrami, a Swiss defender, were both born in Kosovo. They fled with their families when the economic and political situation deteriorated.
Behrami has a large Kosovo flag tattoo, in contrast to Shaqiri's decorated boot. Xhaka has been vocal on social media about his Kosovar Albanian identity. A fourth Swiss player, Blerim Dzemaili, was born in the ethnically Albanian city Tetovo on the Macedonia-Kosovo border.
Each of the players had lent support for an independent Kosovo national team; Shaqiri at one point even suggested he might play for it if it ever happened, angering many in Switzerland who questioned his loyalty to his adopted country.
"If he loves Kosovo that much and never misses a chance to flaunt the flag, why did he refuse a chance to play for their team?" Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic said when asked about Shaqiri's boots.
When the Kosovo national team was officially recognised in 2016, Fifa announced that anyone who had played in a tournament representing another nation could not switch, ruling out Switzerland's Kosovar players.
As for the two coaches in Friday's game, they were born 70 miles apart in Bosnia, and neither seemed interested in discussing the nationalistic tension inherent in their teams' showdown. "As I said a hundred times, let me say it for the 101st time," Serbia's Mladen Krstajic said before the game, "I am not into politics."
Yet politics was never far away on Friday, and Kosovo — even as it was not playing — remains a continuing issue. Serbia views Kosovo as part of its territory and its history. When Serbia beat Costa Rica in its first game of the tournament, the country's foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, noted the fact that the Central American country was one of the first to recognise Kosovo's unilateral independence in 2008.
"The victory over the team of Costa Rica was one small, sweet revenge," he said.
Fifa had highlighted the potential for controversy at Friday's game, and the potential for flash points over chants and banners. Serbia was fined 10,000 Swiss francs this week (about S$13,583) after its supporters displayed what Fifa said was the banner of a "Serbian paramilitary nationalist movement" at the Costa Rican game.
The punishment led the Serbian football federation to issue a statement urging fans attending the "high-risk game" on Friday not to display political banners. "Do not respond to eventual provocations and show to the world that we are the people that do not abuse this game for political or any other purposes," federation officials wrote.
As the start of the game approached Friday, the centre of Kaliningrad filled with Serbian fans as well as Russians who have adopted Serbia as their second team, largely because of long-standing religious and cultural ties. "Russia, Serbia, Brothers, Forever" was sung as the supporters walked to the stadium as a group.
There was little sign of any anti-Albanian sentiment, although "Kosovo Is Serbia" flags proliferated. It was only later that the Swiss fans, in much smaller numbers, gathered near the stadium.
"We do have a lot of immigrants in our team, but Shaqiri and Xhaka are both Swiss and from Kosovo," Swiss supporter Andreas Podolak said. "We are proud they chose our team."
Inside the Kaliningrad Stadium there was no doubt who would be the focus of the overwhelmingly pro-Serbia crowd. It was Shaqiri, who was booed every time his face appeared on the stadium's video screen and every time he touched the ball. Which wasn't much in the first few minutes.
Serbia has been rejuvenated under Krstajic, who has built his team to get the most out of the young Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. In the opening stages, the three-man midfield of Milinkovic-Savic, Dusan Tadic and Filip Kostic swarmed Switzerland's defense, and it took only five minutes for the rollicking Aleksandar Mitrovic to powerfully head in a goal from a Tadic cross to give Serbia a 1-0 lead.
Switzerland pressed back, however, and three times Dzemaili had a clear sight of goal. Three times, he missed. It was Serbia that displayed the better strength and movement.
But it was Switzerland that started to dominate as Serbia tired, and the effervescent Shaqiri didn't. Ultimately, he burst clear to give his side a resonant World Cup victory and to make his controversial hand sign.
As the game ended, heavy rain began to fall, and Shaqiri gave a thumbs up to Serbian fans as he left the field. At that moment, no one was booing him.