When Albania lined up against Switzerland in Lens at Euro 2016, it became a fixture that holds a uniquely fascinating place in world football. If Eastern Europe’s modern history of violent geopolitics had played out differently, this fixture would have been vastly altered.
If other universes exist, five members of the Swiss squad could have found themselves representing Albania instead, while an amazing nine members of the Albania squad were either born or raised in Switzerland. To further complicate matters, Kosovo were not yet a FIFA recognised member when Euro qualifying began, meaning it was a momentous occasion for three nations with all 14 of these players eligible to represent Kosovo.
To add another complex layer to this intricate knot, lining up against each other on the pitch in Northern France were two brothers, the first time this has ever happened in European Championship history. Unfortunately, Taulant and Granit do not have a unique background, but you would be hard-pressed to find two footballers as fiercely proud of their ethnic heritage as the Xhakas.
Taulant, the older Xhaka, is a combative defensive midfielder who has been the lynchpin in one of the most dominant sides in Europe over the past decade, Basel. His younger brother is arguably the more famous Xhaka as the fiery, deep-lying passer of Arsenal’s midfield. But it all almost never happened.
In 1986 Ragip Xhaka, the father of Taulant and Granit, was jailed in Yugoslavia for taking part in demonstrations against the communist government in Belgrade. Ragip was only 22 at the time but was forced to share a jail cell with four other men where they only allowed out once a day, for ten minutes.
He was beaten as a political prisoner and not allowed to contact his girlfriend, Elmaze, who he had only been dating for three months before he was imprisoned. Undeterred, she waited for three and a half years for Ragip who was surprisingly released early from prison.
Their father’s imprisonment is something that has shaped the lives of his children, as Granit told The Guardian in 2017: “My dad showed incredible strength and Taulant and I have grown up with his mental strength. We had this idol, this role model, who taught us that you have to be strong to achieve things. So we grew up very strong. It’s why on the pitch, we have this mental strength to get over things and really go for it.”
On Ragip’s release, the young couple fled from their ethnic Albanian roots to Switzerland where the junior Xhakas grew up. Despite their tender ages of four and six, they would play football together as best friends for Concordia Basel in order to “keep them off the streets”. They would continue to play together through the youth ranks of Basel until the 2010/11 season where both promoted into the first-team squad.
Their first career divergence came when Taulant was loaned out to fellow Swiss side Grasshoppers in order to gain first-team experience. This is where the first of their many friendly duels over the years came, Basel defeating Grasshoppers 2-0. This began a common theme throughout their careers of Granit constantly getting one over his elder brother.
In 2012 Borussia Mönchengladbach came calling for the younger Xhaka, who made the €8.5m move to Germany and established himself as one of the elite Swiss midfielders in Europe. Granit’s four seasons for Die Fohlen were a success, featuring nearly 150 appearances and catching the eye of a number of Premier League teams, with Arsenal eventually the winning bidders.
Granit’s time at Arsenal has been turbulent, and he’s often polarised opinion. He’s a midfielder who enjoys the physical side of the game and is capable of putting in a crunching tackle, but he’s not exactly the defensive-minded anchor Arsenal needed at the time. An argument can be made that Arsenal signed the midfielder without really knowing how best to utilise his greatest attribute – his wide range passing ability – meaning he has suffered from inconsistency.
His time at the Emirates seemed all but over after he reacted angrily to jeers from the crowd after he was substituted in a fixture against Crystal Palace last season. His departure from the pitch was full of sarcastic clapping and expletive-laden retorts to the spectators, a cardinal sin of football. He was stripped of the Arsenal captaincy he had only recently obtained.
Granit has since turned it around, however, the Arteta revolution seeing Xhaka’s relationship with the fans repaired amid more consistent form during the Gunners’ successful tilt at the FA Cup last campaign.
While Granit was becoming a Premier League star, Taulant stayed in Basel racking up league championships and cups. Granit has the higher profile, but Taulant has won more titles. In fact, Taulant can probably count himself unlucky that a Premier League team never came calling, particularly considering the importance placed on anchors at the base of midfield.
Both Xhakas believe they owe a debt to Switzerland. It was the country that offered them refuge when their own became too violent, and where they were given opportunities that would have been impossible in their homeland. As such, both players represented Switzerland at youth level up to the under-21s, but neither forgot their Kosovo-Albanian roots.
Granit especially was publicly disappointed when the Albania FA were slow to enlist him for national services. As a result, he continued with Switzerland where he has been a mainstay of the side since 2011, scoring 12 goals in 84 appearances to date.
The inverse happened with Taulant. Despite representing the youth sides, Switzerland dallied with the senior call-up to leave the door open for Albania to swoop in, much to the delight of the midfielder. Displaying the fieriness and controversy the Xhakas have come to be known for, Taulant refused to represent Albania for nearly a year during the 2018 World Cup qualifying after claiming that the manager Gianni De Biasi was only interested in money. He only returned to the Albanian setup after De Biasi was sacked.
That momentous fixture in Lens ended in victory and a man of the match award for Granit. It wasn’t the first time (nor would it be the last) that the two brothers squared off against each other, but this occasion was different. This was two best friends, two proud Kosovans representing different nations and going into battle with each other.
Football is the Xhakas’ passion, but as Granit said after the match, they know there are more important things in life: “We fought against one another, and it was a football match, nothing more.”
By Matthew Gibbs @matthewleuan