An enthralling football match broke out for 50 minutes but perhaps it was naive to suggest this encounter would pass quietly.
It ended with Granit Xhaka, who had already outraged Serbia’s bench with a crude gesture midway through the second half, to the fore of yet another flare-up and there may be repercussions away from the pitch too. In the latter stages of normal time a message over the public address system asked the crowd to refrain from “discriminatory chants and gestures”. It has been alleged that sections of the Serbia support were responsible. Fifa had presumably already cleared time over the weekend to deal with any fallout from a match that always spelt trouble and their intray already looks full.
It meant Switzerland’s progress to the last 16, where they will face Portugal, was overshadowed by controversy and unpleasantness. They deserved to win, seeing an early lead overhauled but effectively ending the contest when Remo Freuler drilled them back in front just after half-time. In the event only a two-goal win would have served Serbia but, beyond the nine minutes in which a freewheeling but desperately self-destructive side led, that never looked on.
The only sure thing was that, four years after Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri had transformed the context of this fixture by celebrating their goals in Kaliningrad with Albanian “eagle” hand signs, enmity would be bubbling below the surface. Both teams had taken vows of good behaviour in the buildup and set about tricking onlookers into believing them in a pulsating opening period whose fire was contained on the pitch. Shaqiri, booed from the start, had made a hushing gesture to Serbia’s fans after giving Switzerland the lead with a deflected shot but, as provocations go, it felt mild.
Serbia’s desperation on falling behind again to Freuler led Aleksandar Mitrovic, who had cancelled out Shaqiri’s opener with a marvellous header, to effect an egregious dive in search of a penalty. Their bench joined the protests and had more to complain about in the aftermath. Xhaka, standing nearby, appeared to grab his genitals and look towards the Serbia substitutes; a melee briefly ensued and the replacement goalkeeper, Predrag Rajkovic, was booked. Neither side emerged from the episode well and it seems inconceivable no charges will follow.
“I saw Granit totally focused on football and he performed very well,” said the Switzerland manager, Murat Yakin, when asked if he would hold a conversation with Xhaka, the captain, about his discipline.
“I saw players from Serbia crossing the sideline and others tried to calm them down. I think that’s a normal exchange. Emotions are involved but overall we were in control. I don’t know exactly what happened.”
Xhaka’s focus wavered again before full-time when he and Nikola Milenkovic almost came to blows, the Serbia defender pushing him away near the byline as players from all around waded in. “It’s a game where a lot of emotions were involved, I think it’s part of football,” deadpanned a hoarse Xhaka afterwards.
That may not wash with the authorities, who are likely to look dimly on elements of both setups’ behaviour. The context of Serbia’s relationship with Kosovo, the largely ethnically Albanian state that is Shaqiri’s birthplace and the homeland of Xhaka’s parents, has reared up on a number of high-profile football occasions over the last decade and punishments of varying degree are nothing new.
Serbia are already under investigation by Fifa for displaying a flag showing Kosovo as part of their country, with the words “We do not surrender” in their dressing room before facing Brazil last week. So much for all the fine words and saintly proclamations.
For a while the sport was allowed to talk, or at least mutter, and the first half resembled high-stakes World Cup football at its best. Serbia, free-flowing on the ball and ludicrously loose off it, struck the post through Andrija Zivkovic but promptly left Shaqiri unattended. When Mitrovic converted Dusan Tadic’s cross they had a platform and things got better when Dusan Vlahovic, given his first start of the tournament after arriving half-fit, finished clinically after more fine work from the Ajax veteran.
There was never any genuine sense Serbia could hold their lead and, just before the interval, Breel Embolo swept in an equaliser after Silvan Widmer was afforded too much space to cross. That is just a highlights reel of the chances, which came thick and fast at that point.
Seconds before Freuler rewarded a smart flick from Ruben Vargas, a fan was escorted from the upper tier of the stand after apparently making the “eagle” sign. It was the first action deemed to be aggravating but far from the last: the deterioration from there was steep and Switzerland will, for now, simply feel glad to have completed the on-pitch assignment.
“Sometimes tensions come or bad words can cause uncomfortable behaviour; it’s normal in this kind of game,” said Stojkovic, who may yet find some of his own contributions do not escape scrutiny.
“We knew there would be a lot of emotions; we showed we were a bit more clever in the head,” the Switzerland defender Fabian Schar said. In the head but perhaps not elsewhere.