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.
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.
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.