Switzerland vs Albania preview: Brothers Taulant and Granit Xhaka at the heart of Swiss clash with Albania

Ragip, the pair's father will be torn as his sons go head-to-head at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis

Granit Xhaka in training for Switzerland
Granit Xhaka in training for Switzerland

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 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 home land, 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 Group I 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 on Saturday.

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.

Arsenal signed Granit Xhaka this summer

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. Granit was sold to Borussia Monchengladbach in 2012, were he quickly asserted himself on the higher standard of Bundesliga. Taulant returned to Basel the next year and set about trying to replace his brother, less of a presence on the pitch, more of a terrier.

Even before moving to Monchengladbach Granit was good enough to be called up by Switzerland and for him there was little question of who he would choose to represent. He played at the 2014 World Cup and is now one of the leaders of the team.

Taulant sensed that it would be difficult to make it into the Swiss national side, given the quality of players in his position, not least his brother. So in 2014 he decided to play for Albania instead, and added some grit and class to the team who surprised everyone in qualifying. When they did, in October last year, it was Granit who cried.

That is the story of the Xhaka family and the Behrami family is not very different.

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Ragip Behrami, Valon’s father, was not thrown into prison by the government but he was forced out of a job running a plastics company in Mitrovice, a town divided between Kosovans and Serbs, each community either side of the Ibar River. His wife Halime lost her job too and so in 1990 the Behrami family made the same decision as the Xhakas. They look the long bus away from home and settled in Stabilo, on the Swiss-Italian border, benefiting from the Swiss government’s loans to migrant families, slowly repaid once they had found work.

“One day my parents decided there was no future at home,” Behrami told The Independent last season. “We decided to leave and try to go somewhere where there was work.”

Five years later the Behrami family were due to return to Kosovo and the local athletics club, where Valon was an outstanding long-distance runner, organised a petition on his behalf. Valon was playing football with the son of a local politician, whose father interceded on the family’s behalf.

That is why Behrami feels such a debt to Switzerland and why he is so pleased to be able to represent them. Like many players on the pitch on Saturday, he could have played for either side, and has a tattoo on his left arm of the Swiss and Kosovan flags intertwined. “I want to show that I am committed to both,” he said. “One side because my family are from there, the other because Switzerland made me, because of them they are here.” These are the fraternal feelings that will mix in so many people involved in this game, from the players on the pitch to Ragip Xhaka in the stands.

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