Sunday 21 January 2018

Here's why Arsenal's star signing will play against his brother at Euro 2016

Switzerland's Granit Xhaka Picture: Reuters/Yves Herman
Switzerland's Granit Xhaka Picture: Reuters/Yves Herman

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Ragip Xhaka will watch from the stands in Lens this afternoon, supporting both teams. His 23-year-old son Granit will be playing in the white of Switzerland, his 25-year-old son Taulant in the red of Albania. They will be playing against each other for the first time.

For Ragip Xhaka, it will be an afternoon crammed with meaning, bringing the story of his life together on a football pitch in France. "It is the perfect reflection of our family," he said, "we would have been very unhappy if both teams had not made it."

Ragip is from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. He was a political prisoner through the late 1980s and, as soon as he was released in 1990, he fled to Switzerland with his wife Elmaze, who is in fact supporting their adopted home. Their sons were born in Switzerland soon after they arrived. It is a remarkable story, but not a unique one.

Kosovans moved to Switzerland en masse in the 1990s, fleeing ethnic strife, poverty and war. There is now a Kosovan community of 200,000 in Switzerland, and a strong Kosovan presence in the Swiss national side. Valon Behrami was born in Kosovo, left for Switzerland in 1990 and now plays for the same team too. Xherdan Shaqiri was born there too, the following year, and left as an infant.

These players, like most Kosovans, are ethnic Albanians and that means that today's match is of special importance. When they were growing up they had the opportunity to represent Switzerland or Albania, and Behrami seriously considered Albania before making his decision.

Many players from the same background, though, not just Taulant Xhaka, did choose Albania, helping them to what is their first tournament as an independent nation. Five other members of the Albanian squad - Amir Abrashi, Arlind Ajeti, Migjen Basha, Shkelzen Gashi and Frederic Veseli - were born in Switzerland, while four others grew up there.

Back when these players decided their international futures, representing Kosovo itself was not an option. Keen to do something for football in their homeland, Behrami, Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka all wrote to Fifa in 2012 to support the Kosovan candidacy. That campaign culminated this May when Uefa and Fifa formally accepted Kosovo, who have been playing friendlies for the last few years. Starting in October, they will be playing in qualification for the 2018 World Cup.

Granit and Taulant Xhaka were slightly too old to have that option. They have each taken their own paths from their childhood at Concordia Basel and then FC Basel, leading very different routes to take them to the Stade Bollaert-Delelis today.

It started in 1990 when Ragip Xhaka was released from prison. He had spent three-and-a-half years in a small cell with four other men, allowed out for just 10 minutes each day. Elmaze, Granit and Taulant's mother, could only visit every 15 days. Ragip's crime was protesting against the Yugoslav government, amid simmering ethnic tensions between the Kosovan-Albanians and the rising forces of Serb nationalism.

It was thanks in part to the tiresome work of Amnesty International that Ragip Xhaka was released and was soon as he was free he knew he had to leave. He found work as a landscape gardener and built his life in the Kleinbasel district, near FC Basel's ground.

The Xhaka boys were quickly enrolled into the local football team Concordia Basel to, in Ragip's own words, "keep them off the streets". Soon enough they made the step up to FC Basel but Granit, the younger brother, was more obviously gifted, as well as 13cm taller, an imposing and combative midfielder. He made his Basel debut at 17 in 2010, before Taulant, who was not quite as good at first. Granit was seen as more responsible as a boy, which is why, in a story that is now very well-known online, he was trusted with a house key before his brother.

Taulant went to Grasshopper Zurich to find his feet as a player while Granit secured his position in the Basel first team where he was first called up.

Granit was sold to Borussia Monchengladbach in 2012, were he quickly asserted himself on the higher standard of Bundesliga and will ply his trade with Arsenal next season. It's been a long journey but for this game at least, it will be a day for both to remember their roots. (© Independent News Service)

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