Switzerland and Serbia feel the weight of history before high-stakes clash

The scars of the Kosovo conflict are yet to heal as both sides pledge no repeat of 2018 World Cup flashpoints

The flashpoints had been well signposted. When Serbia and Switzerland met in Kaliningrad at Russia 2018 it was clear from the outset that nobody would be fading out quietly. Xherdan Shaqiri’s decision to recognise the land of his birth with a Kosovo flag stitched into the heel of his right boot had warmed a tinderbox that was already well stocked and, when Granit Xhaka celebrated his thudding equaliser by forming an Albanian eagle with his hands, tensions ignited.

Both players repeated the gesture when Shaqiri scored a dramatic late winner that ultimately ensured their side were the ones who reached the last 16; the recriminations were long, loud and ended with Fifa issuing several fines.

Given the teams meet again on Friday with the stakes even higher, it is tempting to wonder just how busy the disciplinary chiefs may find themselves over the weekend. Last time out there remained one group stage game for fates to be confirmed: at Stadium 974 there will be no such leeway and whoever masters the occasion will take it all. Serbia must win and hope Brazil do not down tools against Cameroon; a point will suffice for Switzerland unless Rigobert Song’s players contrive a shock.

It was a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Four years ago, hostilities had been publicly stoked, Aleksandar Mitrovic among those to question Shaqiri’s choice of footwear. Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo as an independent state and encounters with Shaqiri and Xhaka, who both signed a petition to Fifa 10 years ago pledging support for what became the official Kosovan national team, are imbued with added significance on both sides.

Yet much of the buildup to their latest showdown has resembled a convention of the saints. It was clear on Tuesday, when Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Dusan Tadic took questions at Serbia’s Al Arabi training base, that nobody was of a mind to dangle bait.

“There’s no doubt it was big pressure four years ago but we need to focus on football and show we can play better than them,” Tadic said when asked how Serbia would handle the occasion this time. His teammate matched the answer virtually word for word. Neither player expected emotions to run high: the priority was simply to look at themselves.

Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka, left, and Xherdan Shaqiri perform their eagle celebrations against Serbia in 2018.
Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka, left, and Xherdan Shaqiri perform their eagle celebrations against Serbia in 2018. Photograph: Laurent Gilliéron/EPA

Mitrovic struck a similar note, saying: “It was a different game, we’re not thinking about what happened before.”

The problem is that the wider context tends to lurk beneath the surface and undermine any well-scripted words. Serbia are under Fifa investigation for displaying a flag showing Kosovo as part of their country, along with the words “We do not surrender”, in their dressing room before their opening game against Brazil.

That did not go unnoticed in Kosovo, whose minister of culture, youth and sport, Hajrulla Ceku, described the image as “hateful, xenophobic and genocidal”. Kosovo’s football association called it an “aggressive action”. Scars from the horrifying war between local forces and modern-day Serbia, fought in the 1990s, will never fully heal.

Perhaps that is why Serbia, whose rap sheet with the governing bodies is lengthy, have been so intent on message discipline this week. After the match in 2018 their FA was fined £41,000 on account of discriminatory banners and messages from their fans. Their coach at the time, Mladen Krstajic, and then-FA head Slavisa Kokeza also took hits to the wallet for their conduct

Xhaka and Shaqiri received £7,600 fines for their celebrations; the Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama, lent his backing to a “Don’t be afraid of the eagle” crowdfunding initiative that raised enough money to pay them off almost immediately. Two months later, Xhaka, the son of emigrants from Kosovo, promised such a flashpoint “will never happen again”. In some quarters of Switzerland he and Shaqiri were looked upon dimly for focusing their attentions on Kosovo after scoring.

“There’s nothing in the history behind these two games,” Xhaka said this week, echoing his counterparts’ tone. “We are Switzerland, they are Serbia and that’s it. We’re here to play football, as are they.”

As long as that remains a priority, the rewards could be lavish. Switzerland have performed modestly but have grown as an attacking proposition since the last World Cup. Serbia are among the most creative, bewitching sides in the competition. There is pressure on the coach, Dragan Stojkovic, to give Dusan Vlahovic his first start of Qatar 2022 and form a potentially lethal pairing with Mitrovic.

“We’re happy to focus on football tomorrow and respect each other,” said the Switzerland manager, Murat Yakin, adding his voice to the entente. It remains to be seen whether any simmering enmity takes on a life of its own once again.


Nick Ames in Doha

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Switzerland advance and Serbia go out as Freuler finish settles stormy contest
Switzerland will face Portugal in the last 16 after a 3-2 win over Serbia, who are eliminated after an exciting but bad-tempered game

Nick Ames at Stadium 974

02, Dec, 2022 @9:12 PM

Article image
Serbia face Fifa disciplinary proceedings after stormy Switzerland showdown
The conduct of Serbia players, officials and fans is under investigation after the Group G game which saw 11 players booked as Serbia were eliminated from the World Cup

Nick Ames in Doha

05, Dec, 2022 @3:44 PM

Article image
Game of cojones: Serbia suffer and give Granit Xhaka the last word | Barney Ronay
Switzerland’s captain offered a snapshot of the bad blood between Albania, Kosovo and Serbia with one crude gesture

Barney Ronay at Stadium 974

02, Dec, 2022 @11:59 PM

Article image
Serbia fans ‘showed fascist slogans and sang about killing Albanians’ at game
Serbia supporters displayed fascist slogans and aimed racist chants towards ethnic Albanians during the game against Switzerland, an eyewitness has said

Exclusive by Nick Ames in Doha

03, Dec, 2022 @4:37 PM

Article image
Richarlison’s stunning double sinks Serbia to get Brazil up and running
Richarlison scored two second-half goals – including a stunning bicycle kick – to give Brazil a 2-0 win over Serbia in their opening World Cup Group G match

Jonathan Liew at Lusail Stadium

24, Nov, 2022 @9:10 PM

Article image
Casemiro stunner ends Switzerland resistance to fire Brazil into last 16
Casemiro scored a late winner for Brazil to defeat Switzerland 1-0 and send his team into the last 16 of the World Cup

Louise Taylor at Stadium 974

28, Nov, 2022 @6:21 PM

Article image
Breel Embolo’s emotional goal edges Switzerland past wasteful Cameroon
The Cameroon-born striker did not celebrate his second-half finish which handed Switzerland a narrow 1-0 victory to kick off Group G

Louise Taylor at Al Janoub Stadium

24, Nov, 2022 @12:31 PM

Article image
Ramos hits hat-trick as Portugal thrash Switzerland 6-1 after Ronaldo dropped
Gonçalo Ramos scored a hat-trick after being selected ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo as Portugal thrashed Switzerland 6-1 to set up a World Cup quarter-final against Morocco

Jonathan Wilson at Lusail Stadium

06, Dec, 2022 @9:14 PM

Article image
Serbia 2-3 Switzerland: World Cup 2022 – as it happened
A splenetic match was settled by Remo Freuler early in the second half, sending Switzerland through to the last 16 and Serbia out

Will Magee

02, Dec, 2022 @9:31 PM

Article image
‘He doesn’t deserve this’: Brazil plot for Switzerland test without Neymar | Louise Taylor
Brazil manager Tite has already chosen his star striker’s replacement but warns against fouls that ‘target specific players’ in Qatar

Louise Taylor in Doha

27, Nov, 2022 @4:12 PM