Explaining why Switzerland vs. Serbia at a World Cup is such a big deal

Xhaka opens up about his relationship with Arsenal fans (1:38)

Granit Xhaka explains how he has improved his relationship with Arsenal fans. (1:38)

The countries of Switzerland and Serbia are more than 600 miles (roughly 1,000 kilometres) apart in central Europe, but when the two soccer teams go head-to-head in Group G to try to seal a spot in the 2022 World Cup round of 16 on Friday, they will also be reigniting an unlikely rivalry that boiled over at the last World Cup in 2018.

When Switzerland's Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri scored in the 2-1 victory back in 2018, they both celebrated their goals by putting their hands together to make a two-headed eagle sign -- the thumbs represent the heads of the two eagles, while the fingers look like the feathers -- a reference to the flag of Albania. It was a controversial act and polarised opinion. FIFA fined the pair 10,000 Swiss Francs each (around $10,000) for political provocation, alongside a fine of 54,000 Swiss Francs (roughly $57,000) to Serbia's federation for discriminatory banners and chants.

Asked about his controversial celebration after the game in 2018, Shaqiri, who now plays for MLS side Chicago Fire, replied: "It's all about the excitement. ... People could give different interpretations to my jubilation. If this gesture could hurt the sensitivity of the people who watched the game ... I'm sorry."

Xhaka was also remorseful, saying: "I'm sorry for what happened and I would be stupid if I said I'd do it again. It will never happen again."

Hundreds of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, including a government minister, raised enough money to pay their fines. But Xhaka and Shaqiri are just a couple of several international players with Kosovo-Albanian heritage playing for other international teams. Adnan Januzaj, the Belgium international, has his roots there, as does former Switzerland international Valon Behrami.

Kosovo has its own young national team, hoping to qualify for major tournaments in the future, but for now the country's fans will be full behind Switzerland on Friday.

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To understand this tension in more depth, we need a short history lesson.

Shaqiri and Xhaka's parents are from the now-independent Kosovo, an ethnically Albanian state (92% of the population are Albanians) that was involved in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s -- a series of conflicts after which the former Yugoslavia was divided into independently governed countries. The last to gain independence was Kosovo, which had been under Serbian control, with the Kosovo War in 1998-99 claiming the lives of 12,000 Kosovo-Albanians and displacing an estimated 1.5 million in the region.

"A guerrilla war was organized by Kosovo Liberation Army against Serbia Army and Police, before NATO launched air strikes against what was then Yugoslavia, which ended with liberation of Kosovo and Serbia's army and police leaving," explains Kosovo-based journalist Xhemajl Rexha. "Kosovo was run by a United Nations administration up to 2008, after which it declared its independence on Feb. 17, 2008. Some 4% of the Kosovo population are ethnic Serbs, who refuse to recognize Kosovo as a state and want it to return to Serbia."

Three months after Xhaka's father, Ragip, met his wife-to-be, Elmaze. in 1986, he was imprisoned for six years for taking part in student protests against the then-Yugoslavian government in Pristina. In an interview with Blick earlier this year, Ragip talked through the ordeal, claiming he was tortured over the space of six months, having eventually seen out three-and-a-half years of his prison sentence until Amnesty International helped secure his release alongside other captives.

After he was freed, Ragip felt it was too unsafe to stay, instead heading to Switzerland in 1990 with Elmaze. In 1991, the Xhakas' first son, Taulant, was born in Basel, while Granit followed 18 months later in 1992. Both were talented footballers: Granit began his career at FC Basel but ended up heading to the German Bundesliga with Borussia Monchengladbach, then Premier League side Arsenal and chose to play for Switzerland; Taulant stayed in the Swiss league with Basel for entire his club career and opted to represent Albania internationally.

"If there is one national team [at the World Cup] which unites Kosovo-Albanians, it is Switzerland, and that is thanks to Kosovo-born Shaqiri and Xhaka." Rexha told ESPN. "Shaqiri is one of the best in history of the Swiss national team, and that it is a source of pride here. Both of them are very much connected to Kosovo. Shaqiri's boots most of the time include a Kosovo flag alongside the Swiss one. Granit comes often to Kosovo, helping local football teams with different donations. Granit often posts in Albanian on his Instagram page, and that is very much appreciated here, as a fact they, too, are very proud of their heritage."

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The match will also be an acid test of Xhaka's temperament and leadership skills. There will likely be provocation from Serbia fans in the stands, but you feel this 2022 version of Xhaka -- in the form of his life for Arsenal prior to heading to Qatar -- will handle it better than he would have done back in 2018.

In July 2022, Xhaka spoke to ESPN in an exclusive interview about his journey. He referenced the controversy around him back in October 2019 when, as Arsenal captain, he mouthed "f--- off" to the fans after he was substituted against Crystal Palace. Xhaka was stripped of the armband and came close to leaving the club at the start of 2020. In 2022, looking back, he sees that moment as "a big misunderstanding in my opinion, from them, from me. But I play football because I have a lot of passion."

The arrival of Mikel Arteta as manager persuaded Xhaka to stay and this season, he has been indispensable in their drive to the top of the Premier League. The midfielder has profited from a more advanced midfield role with the Gunners -- playing more as a No. 8, than a No. 6. -- though has been reluctant to talk up his own form.

After scoring the winner against PSV back in October, he said: "I'm much more experienced, much more, not clever, because I don't want to label myself stupid before, but with the games, with the age, with everything else around, you become a different player, a different person. I'm so happy that everything is going how I always dreamed."

Xhaka has been the measured voice of Switzerland in Qatar; diplomatic in news conferences and a calm presence on the field. Ahead of Switzerland's opening game against Cameroon, Xhaka was asked about his father again, but he deflected the question to a Swiss spokesperson. Asked later whether he was expecting Serbia to hand out some rough justice, he answered: "We are all professionals -- every team wants to win and this is the most important thing -- we are here to play football and we are not here to educate anybody."

Xhaka was again asked about Serbia after the Cameroon match. "Serbia is a good team, they have great players," he replied. "Maybe that match will be decisive, maybe not, we will see what happens against Brazil, then we will turn to Serbia."

Meanwhile, after Serbia's match with Brazil, photos emerged of their changing room. There was a Serbia flag with an outline of the country including the independent Kosovo within its borders, containing the slogan: "We do not surrender."

Hajrulla Ceku, Kosovo's Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport wrote on Twitter in response: "Disgraceful images from Serbia locker room, displaying hateful, xenophobic and genocidal messages towards Kosova, while exploiting FIFA World Cup platform. We expect concrete actions from FIFA considering that the Kosovo Football Federation (FFK) is a full FIFA and UEFA member." FIFA has since opened disciplinary proceedings against Serbia.

With Brazil safely through on six points, the winner of Friday's final group game between Switzerland and Serbia will likely take second spot (unless Cameroon spring a surprise) and, regardless of the extra subplot, it's a huge match.

The Swiss supporters have been keeping a close eye on how the last fortnight and, in particular, how Xhaka has handled it all. "He is our hero, the legend of the team, but he knows the team is very important as captain," one Swiss fan told ESPN on Monday ahead of the Brazil game. "He has matured a lot over the last few years, no more of those red cards we saw at Arsenal. We're very proud of him.

"When we played Serbia in 2018 it became a big political issue. I don't think Shaqiri and Xhaka understood how big it was what they were doing then, and won't make the same mistake again. They will be calm."

But there'll be eyes on the game from back in Kosovo.

"Pristina City Hall is to organize a big screening, and thousands are to attend," Rexha said. "The game will be watched closely all around Kosovo, including Shaqiri's birthplace, Gjilan, where flags are raised high when he plays."

But when the match kicks off at Stadium 974, for Xhaka and his Switzerland teammates, the focus will be solely on reaching the knockout stages.

"I think we're well prepared and that's necessary to gather all our strength to be able to play Serbia," Switzerland manager Murat Yakin said. "We must focus on football, just on football. For both teams this is a decisive game -- and we want to focus on football, everything else I really don't care about."