Football, family and fate: the shaping of Granit Xhaka

Football, family and fate: the shaping of Granit Xhaka

THE YEAR WAS 1993. Across Britain, radio stations juggled the eclectic sounds of Meat Loaf, Haddaway, Pet Shop Boys, and UB40, cult comedy Groundhog Day arrived in cinemas, Irvine Welsh’s breakthrough novel Trainspotting flew from the bookshelves,, and in the north of Switzerland, in the thriving metropolitan city of Basel, a nine-month-old future football star by the name of Granit Xhaka was taking his first steps.

Fast-forward approximately two decades, give or take a few days here or there in order to conveniently arrive around today, and in the land of Pet Shop Boys and UB40 you’ll find that once-future star very much making himself known in the most present of tenses, plying his trade in the Premier League.

To the casual onlooker, it may appear as though Granit Xhaka has it all. Just 25-years-old and already he’s won two league titles at home in Switzerland, captained a German team in the Champions League, amassed a near half-century of international caps, and become one of Arsenal’s most expensive signings.

But Xhaka wasn’t always the subject of such envy. From the most humble of beginnings, the youngster’s journey to the top was first preceded by his parents’ own journey to safety, fleeing a country on the brink of civil war, the pair empowered by a determination to find a better life, one that would one day be embodied in the spirit with which their sons fight their own battles on the football field.

Though they had spent much of their lives together in the habitual surroundings of their country’s capital, Priština, Ragip and Elmaze Xhaka were far from comfortable. Such was their familiarity with their surroundings, they may well have been able to walk the streets with their eyes closed or impart directions to lost strangers without a second’s hesitation, but so boldly were the borders drawn on the land around them in Kosovo, they never truly felt as though they were home.

On account of the bloody socio-political backdrop against which quotidian life in Kosovo played out – repercussions of the ethnic tensions between Serbs and Albanians that hissed and cracked and frequently erupted violently across post-Tito Yugoslavia – there remained a harrowing likelihood that many who were born and raised in Kosovo would also likely die there. For Ragip and Elmaze this wasn’t an option; they had dreams of starting a family together and for that Kosovo simply wouldn’t do. They agreed that as soon as they could leave they would.

They had planned on many occasions to flee from Kosovo but, as life conspires behind the scenes so efficiently, their plans were often put on hold by one unforeseen circumstance or another.

One such circumstance, the couple feared, threatened to put their plans on hold indefinitely, when Ragip was sentenced to prison for collaborating in anti-communist demonstrations. Condemned to a tiny claustrophobic cell, shared with four other men, with permission to stretch his legs for a mere 10 minutes each day, prison represented the polar opposite of their aspirational wanderlust. But in 1990 Ragip was released – after three and a half years – and thus came their unmistakable opportunity for escape.

Just as so many of their compatriots had done before them, the couple made for the Kosovo border post-haste, boarding a bus with little more than the clothes on their backs. Their plan was to head north to Scandinavia – Sweden to be precise – where they believed they stood the best chance of creating for themselves a new life.

Along the way they saw much of Europe, travelling west through Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, before stopping shortly in Switzerland to visit some Albanian friends that lived there. They planned only to stop a short while, to catch up before heading off again en route for Sweden, but while in Switzerland they enjoyed becoming reacquainted with the feeling of comfort that comes from sharing in the company of familiar faces.

Read  |  A national team born: the rise of Kosovo

Eventually their friends convinced them to stay, to live and work in Switzerland like them, to stop running, and so without them their bus went on, two passengers lighter, while the couple set about laying their roots from scratch.

A little over a year after finding a home in Basel, close to the intersection where the borders of France, Germany and Switzerland meet, Elmaze gave birth to the couple’s first son, whom they named Taulant, before baby Granit joined them just 18 months later.

Growing up, many believed the Xhaka brothers to be twins, a misconception fuelled just as much by their similar age and size as their mother’s insistence on dressing them in matching outfits. But unlike most bickering brothers who may baulk at the idea of looking just like their rival sibling, Taulant and Granit loved their matching clothes. Why wouldn’t they – they were best friends.

Inseparable, the duo did everything together including unearthing their love of football. Signed to their very first club, Concordia Basel – a feeder club to Switzerland’s most famous team, FC Basel – on the same day – Taulant six-years-old and Granit five – the pair began their careers in tandem, side by side from the very beginning.

Such was the effectiveness of their partnership, so evident was their incredible ability from an early age, it took only two years at Concordia for them to graduate to the Basel academy, which they both joined in 2002. Their early progress delighted their parents, particularly as they had initially taken them to play for Concordia Basel simply to “keep them off of the streets”.

Two of the most talented footballers in their age group, there seemed a sense of inevitability about the Xhaka brothers’ eventual graduation into the first team. Needless to say, it wasn’t without tireless practice and an unerring focus that the two of them continued to improve, but, seeing them playing together at the academy, it seemed implausible to imagine them doing anything but playing for Basel in a few years’ time.

For the two brothers, the call-up to the senior team came in the weeks preceding the 2010-11 season. For Taulant the journey had been by all accounts rather smooth, with few bumps in the road to circumvent along the way. For Granit, however, two years before, a serious injury had cast doubt on his football career entirely.

At the age of 16, with first team football on the near horizon, Granit Xhaka’s dreams of patrolling the St. Jakob-Park turf alongside his brother was dealt a potentially fatal blow when he severely injured his cruciate ligament, tearing his meniscus. “At that point I thought about leaving football and looking more towards apprenticeships at work,” Xhaka said in reflecting upon his young life’s work which, at the time, appeared to be in tatters.

But the youngster persevered, dwelling not on the supposed tragedy of his injury but instead focussing on the mental strength and physical preparation needed to ensure it wasn’t going to end his career. After many months of rehabilitation, Xhaka regained his fitness, though he feared he had fallen painfully short of making his full return in time for the under-17 World Cup.

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With relatively scant playing time under his belt following his recovery, Granit was forced to come to terms with the likelihood of his absence from the under-17 Switzerland squad travelling to Nigeria for the tournament. However fortune this time favoured him, as another injury came into play, this time sidelining one of his midfield rivals, and so Granit, by the skin of his teeth, made the cut and joined his teammates on the plane to Africa. “You need some luck in football,” he later admitted.

At the competition, Switzerland excelled far beyond expectations, with Xhaka at the heart of their midfield, as they went on to win the tournament, victorious in every one of their games, group stage, knockout round and all, even beating fancied hosts Nigeria in the final. Xhaka returned to Basel a World Cup winner, albeit at under-17 level, before happily reassuming his role alongside his brother who was undoubtedly bursting with pride.

In the lead up to the 2010-11 Swiss Super League season, both Taulant and Granit were promoted to the senior squad. The first to be given their debut, Granit made his bow in the last week of July, during the first leg of Basel’s Champions League qualifier away to Hungarian side Debrecen in which he was able to score a late second in a 2-0 win, while Taulant was made to wait until late September to feature in a 5-0 destruction of lower league cup opposition in FC Mendrisio-Stabio.

After becoming fully fledged Basel players, neither brother looked back as over the following two years, along with the increasing responsibility and expectation that came with their growing influence in the team, came the opportunity to lift trophies together, most notably the Swiss league championship in their very first season.

For both brothers, the year 2012 represented a period of great upheaval, during which time the pair began playing for different teams for the first time.

Taulant found breaking into his title-winning team’s vastly talented squad no easy feat and in the January 2012 transfer window, Basel manager Heiko Vogel decided to loan Taulant to league rivals Grasshoppers in order to reward his continued desire and application with a greater chance at first team experience. The elder Xhaka brother would go on to 18 months in Zürich before returning to reclaim his place in the Basel line-up.

Meanwhile, Granit too was set for his own change of scenery. The teenager’s ever-presence in the Basel team, and the consistently elegant midfield performances orchestrated while there, had already earned him a call-up to the Switzerland national team and seemingly hadn’t gone unnoticed by a host of European scouts. After a few months of courting, in May 2012 the news was made official: Granit Xhaka had signed a five-year deal with Lucien Favre’s Borussia Mönchengladbach.

As Granit grew into his role in the Bundesliga, his game matured while his leadership qualities also developed. Though one less finely tuned facet of his game also became rather more noticeable amidst the greater level of competition in Germany: his poor on-field discipline. During his four seasons in western Germany, Xhaka saw red on six occasions.

While it is entirely possible for some players to combine a naturally combative midfield role with a positional awareness, anticipation and timing that doesn’t precipitate a sending off every 10 or so games, Granit Xhaka seemed not to be one of those players. But his disciplinary record is perhaps unsurprising given his natural playing style; itself an entirely idiosyncratic product of his upbringing.

Just as his parents were led through a dangerous journey by the gentle dream of parenthood, so it should be that their young son would rise to prominence in Europe playing a style of football that blends elegant playmaking with the abrasive caveat of disruptive defensive work – the honest ambition and the dark arts that become a necessary precursor to its realisation.

Read  |  A history of football’s dark arts

There is no denying that Xhaka’s implementation of the less ornate aspects of the game would greatly benefit from the type of finessing his passing has evidently received over the years – though with further experience such an upgrade may yet be added to his repertoire – but to remove such fight from his game altogether, for fear of his ill-discipline weighing heavily upon his potential, would be deemed by the player himself unthinkable. Put bluntly, he wasn’t raised not to fight.

Granit’s time at Gladbach coincided with a period of fine progress for the club, their first three seasons of collaboration resulting in Bundesliga finishes of eighth, fifth and third, the last of which saw them secure their place in the following season’s Champions League group stage. For his integral role in these successes, Xhaka was rewarded with a unique honour.

Despite continued evidence pertaining to the midfielder’s penchant for petty bookings, having witnessed Granit’s on-field grit over the course of more than 100 appearances for Die Fohlen, during which time Xhaka had even played for a number of weeks during the 2014-15 season with a broken rib – upon which he later reflected, saying, “When I was playing I was focused. I wasn’t interested in my broken rib. We had to qualify for the Champions League” – in the summer of 2015, Gladbach manager Lucien Favre named the 22-year-old as club captain for the coming season.

Proudly displaying his team’s armband throughout the year, Xhaka led the club to a fourth-place finish and gained many plaudits along the way. Despite these domestic achievements, however, the proudest moment of Granit’s career to date was yet to come.

Following the cessation of the 2015-16 domestic season, preparations for Euro 2016 in France began, resulting in a peculiar set of circumstances for the Xhaka family.

Not only were Granit and Taulant readying themselves to represent opposing nations at the competition – with Granit having chosen in 2011 to play for the country of his birth, Switzerland, while Taulant had later opted to represent Albania – but the group stage draw had placed Switzerland and Albania in the very same group, completing Group A along with hosts France and rivals Romania, and in the tournament’s second fixture the brothers would face one another.

This may have presented a bittersweet dilemma but for both Granit and Taulant the chance to play against one another, between them representing both the country of their birth and the country of their ancestry, was simply an ideal opportunity to openly express the pride with which they value their heritage and the gratitude with which they cherish the country that accepted their parents and into which they had been born. As their father Ragip put it: “A son for Albania, a son for Switzerland. The perfect reflection of our family.”

Though the Xhaka brothers had played on opposing teams once before, during the time in which Granit had remained at Basel while Taulant lined up for Grasshoppers during his loan spell, never before had their alternative allegiances represented so much.

Beneath it all, though, simmering quietly under the abstract representations of identity and disputed geographical incongruities, the fixture presented the pair with the chance to return again – together – to the place that first ignited their enduring brotherly bond: the football field.

Among the 33,000 jubilant fans that lined the stands of the Stade Bollaert-Delelis, the attire of one particular fan captured the spirit of the Xhaka’s rivalry best: unsurprisingly it was their mother, Elmaze. Sitting nervously, but proudly adorned in a black t-shirt emblazoned with a red flag that blended both the white Swiss cross and the black Albanian eagle in equal measure, under which the name Xhaka stood boldly, she watched on as her two sons gave their everything to the battle.

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The game eventually went the way of the Swiss, Fabian Schär’s early goal the decider in a fiercely contested 1-0. But while one left the field victorious as the other cursed a loss, both brothers basked in the occasion, swapping shirts at the final whistle as mementoes, having savoured every minute of their great international clash. Little did they know they would meet again – twice more, in fact – during the following season.

By the time the first ball of the 2016-17 season had been kicked, Granit Xhaka was no longer a Bundesliga player having been purchased for some £30 million by Premier League club Arsenal. Meanwhile, Taulant had long reassumed his role at the spine of his beloved Basel and was enjoying the fruits of his team’s labour in the form of three consecutive league titles.

This brought about the possibility of both brothers’ teams being drawn together in the Champions League group stage, which is exactly what did happen as Arsenal and Basel found themselves sharing a group, both Xhakas again meeting in Group A.

Sadly for Taulant both fixtures followed the trend established by the meeting of their chosen nations during the summer; Granit’s Arsenal won 2-0 at the Emirates in September, while in December, on a belated return to St. Jakob-Park for Granit, Arsenal defeated Basel again, this time by four goals to one.

Nevertheless, neither result was truly unexpected by either side and, perhaps more importantly for Granit and Taulant, once again afforded the brothers the chance to add yet another chapter to the story that one day soon their own families will gather to hear their father and uncle tell.

On account of his relative youth, today still just 24-years-old, there is no telling where Granit Xhaka may go, what he may achieve along the way, or where else his and his brother’s paths may again cross throughout the duration of their football careers. What can be said for certain, however, is that wherever he goes Granit will take with him, before all else, the love of his family, the pride of each of his nations, and the desire to win no matter the circumstance.

Though both Granit and Taulant earned in the sincerest fashion the storied careers that they continue to add to today, it is unlikely either would be in as fortunate a position as they are without parents as strong, determined and passionate as theirs, a sentiment evidently far from lost on Granit who, in an interview with Arsenal, said: “I know the story of my parents. They started from nothing and without them I wouldn’t be where I am today. They always worked hard to make sure I got what I needed like boots, sports equipment and school stuff too.”

“I’m very proud,” Granit beamed. “It wasn’t an easy time for my parents and to bring us up as they have, with respect, with harmony also in the family, that deserves praise. When I have kids in the future, I want to tell them the story about how my parents grew up, and how we grew up, and how it’s two different worlds.”

For now, there’s no doubting that simply continuing to light up the world of football will go a fair share of the way to showing just how grateful he and his brother are to their parents for the start they fought to give them in life. That and a lifetime’s supply of half-and-half jerseys should do it.

By Will Sharp  @shillwarp

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