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Game of cojones: Serbia suffer and give Granit Xhaka the last word | Barney Ronay

Maybe Fifa does have a sense of humour after all. Certainly there was a note of dark comedy in the news, relayed breathlessly over the PA on the final whistle, that the player of the match in this fraught Group E decider was Granit Xhaka.

Not that Xhaka didn’t deserve it. He played well in deep midfield on a steamy night at Stadium 974. He controlled the tempo at times. More to the point Xhaka also controlled the noises off, directing the dark energy that must always accompany this fixture with the poise of a veteran conductor. Albeit, a veteran conductor with one hand down his shorts.

In the end Switzerland progressed quite comfortably to the last 16 with a 3-2 defeat of a Serbia team that ran itself dry in the first half chasing the sun. But the story behind the game will be the heat, the moments of friction, and indeed Xhaka’s own mastery of the gesture of offence.

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There has been talk at this World Cup about football turning into a game of moments. Here was a game that came packed with something much more complex, the most troubled of narratives, a three-volume tract of deep ethnic division.

And yet midway through the second half that baroque backstory was captured in a screenshot, a gif, a single moment, as Xhaka seemed to grab his testicles in an insult directed towards the Serbia bench. Here was Albania-Kosovo-Serbia in a freeze-frame, a history primer for the TikTok generation.

After the game Xhaka shrugged off any suggestion of tension on the pitch, but he might be in a spot of trouble if anyone ever manages to establish the facts. There was a suggestion of pointed words exchanged, of targeted gestures in return. None of this came as a surprise.

This was only the second time these nations have been on a football pitch together. After the first in 2018 there was anger over Xhaka’s and Xherdan Shaqiri’s finger-flapping goal gesture referencing the eagle on the Albanian flag. Both players have Kosovan heritage.

Kosovo, which has a large ethnic Albanian majority, declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Much of the world recognises it. Serbia does not. In an added twist the eagle moment happened in Kaliningrad, a separate Russian enclave by the Baltic. Vladimir Putin is anti-Kosovo. Serbia likes Russia. Hmmm. Isn’t history supposed to have ended?

Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates scoring Switzerland’s first goal against Serbia.
Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates scoring Switzerland’s first goal in understated fashion given the political tensions around the match. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

Murat Yakin and the Swiss had tried their best to take the heat out of all this before the game. Fat chance. In added time there was a genuine flare-up. First Xhaka and Vanja Milinkovic-Savic came together in a classic snarling, chest-shoving huddle. Then it was Xhaka and Aleksandar Mitrovic, who seemed genuinely furious. It looked unresolved. Mitrovic seemed to be making plans for a further summit at some later date.

The benches had emptied after the Xhaka moment, with Dragan Stojkovic, such a dreamy attacking midfielder in his time, out on a World cup pitch once again. There was an ominous message over the PA with 77 minutes gone urging the crowd to refrain from all discriminatory shouts and gestures. Perhaps this was directed at Xhaka.

Granit Xhaka

But even without all that this was a fun, open, slightly wild game. Stadium 974 is one of Doha’s more original stadiums, an edgy urban kind of thing, with a shipping container facade that appears to have been built by elite Qatari hipsters. Serbia needed to win. Switzerland could probably go through with a draw.

And from the first whistle this felt like watching the last minute of a World Cup semi-final extra-time 3-3 draw in 1982. You half expected to see stricken, spindly legged Swiss with socks around their ankles, Serbians in bloodied head bandages, a wild looking referee in black making absurdly theatrical gestures.

Filip Kostic surged down the left recklessly, a footballer who always seems to be fleeing an imaginary swarm of bees. For a while this was Total Serbia, the red shirts simply going forward.

Even before their first attack Switzerland seemed more likely to walk up the other end and score. A thrust down the left found far too much space. Red-shirted defenders fell over in the centre, as though feigning shock. The ball was buried, inevitably, by Shaqiri.

The celebration was a moment of dramatic tension. What, exactly, were we dealing with here? Shaqiri ran toward the Swiss in the stand, legs pounding the turf like a centaur. He went with a finger to the lips, which pretty much counts as an act of grand, healing diplomacy around here.

Mitrovic equalised with a lovely header, buried with the power of a man who has a foot for a head, a thigh for a neck. Serbia went 2-1 up. Hmm. Maybe they’ll just shut up shop from here. Take the air out of … oh. The Swiss made it 2-2, then 3-2.

On his touchline Stojkovic whirled about sweating and frothing in his blue shirt and suit trousers, like an overheated dad at a post-work disco, but Serbia had long since run out of gas.

Gianni Infantino, himself a dedicated politician, has already implored those on the fringes to keep politics out of football at this World Cup. Good luck with that one.

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