Sibling rivalry renewed for Xhaka brothers
Arsenal's Granit warned family ties mean nothing on pitch as Basel's Taulant eyes another big scalp
Published 27/09/2016 | 02:30
Granit Xhaka turns 24 today but, while his parents and friends have all travelled to London ahead of Arsenal's Champions League tie against Basel tomorrow night, there will be one peculiarity.
His big brother and best friend Taulant will not be there to celebrate the occasion and they are also unlikely to even have their daily phone call.
Why? Taulant will be en route to London himself with the Basel team that is hoping to add Arsenal to the scalps of Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool in European competition over recent years.
It is not quite a first, following an even more unlikely clash when Granit and Taulant respectively played for Switzerland and Albania against each other at Euro 2016 but, even so, the prospect of two brothers going head to head in the Champions League remains exceptional.
And, during this interview yesterday in Basel with Taulant, two things were very quickly evident.
First, just how close-knit the entire family is and second, how, back in the country of their birth, Granit has assumed something akin to superstar status.
Taulant is 18 months older and recalls being "physically stronger" but now readily accepts that his range of passing cannot match that of his younger brother.
"Every day was the same," he says. "We played football together after school with all our friends until it got dark. Granit was a striker when he was very young; he used to score lots of goals. I play in a slightly more defensive role.
"Granit has this 40-yard pass. It's a strength that I could maybe learn from him."
Taulant, though, is versatile. He plays either in defence or holding midfield and admitted that it was strange during Euro 2016 to not just be facing his brother but to both be in the centre of the pitch where they were also potentially competing for big 50-50 challenges.
"I was a bit afraid to start with as I didn't want to injure him," he says. "As the game went on you relax and focus just on the game. To play against Arsenal in the Champions League is a childhood dream.
"It will be special. We both go into it with the same thoughts; that we need to win and give everything."
Their parents, Elmaze and Ragip, arrived in London on Sunday for the game. Taulant says that they will support Basel "for their heart" but will still be happy for Granit should Arsenal prevail.
Ragip and Elmaze had previously lived in Pritina in Kosovo at a time when ethnic tensions between Serbs and Albanians in post-Tito Yugoslavia became increasingly serious.
Ragip spent three years in prison after occasionally taking part in demonstrations against the Communist regime. When he was released in 1990, they got on a bus and travelled through Croatia, Slovenia and northern Italy before settling in Basel, where they had Taulant and Granit.
Taulant says he had been "missing" his brother since the move to Arsenal.
"We speak every day, but before a game sometimes not, because we have to focus," he says.
"We won't tell each other how the teams play - we are professional. I hope that after the game we can meet quickly. I need to ask the coach, so hopefully we win and he's in a good mood."
Granit's £32m move to Arsenal from Borussia Mönchegladbach was huge news in Switzerland and, although Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla have largely remained Arsene Wenger's first-choice central midfield, Taulant says that his brother is settling well.
He has already scored two goals and his performances have made him an immediate favourite with fans as well as drawn comparison from Wenger with Emmanuel Petit.
"He needs to be patient but he knows this and I am sure he can progress there," says Taulant. "Arsene Wenger is a coach who takes a lot of young players - he gives them confidence and also tries to help them as people.
"It was the same when he moved to Germany, he needed time but he learnt a lot. He changed, became more self-confident, more open to people. It was a good step to join Arsenal. Granit is very comfortable, very integrated. He is very happy there."
And what of their own futures? Taulant has so far remained in Basel but there is pride rather than any trace of jealousy at his brother's career path.
"I don't think I'm in Granit's shadow - it's not a thing for me," says Taulant. "I think I have shown through my performances for Basel in the Champions League that I'm a good player. Of course it will be a wish for me that we played together in the same team.
"I think it could be a wish for him to come back when he has finished his career."