Officially, this was an international between Serbia and Switzerland but there were deeper, darker, more passionate undertones to this match. For Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, this was Kosovo vs Serbia.
Both men are from the republic that broke away from Serbia and limps on only partially recognised. Shaqiri plays with the Kosovan flag stitched into his boots, for which he was booed by a partisan, Serbian supporting crowd. He would have dreamed of being able to settle a match, in the World Cup, against Serbia. Put through, clean on goal with eight minutes remaining, he scored, cold-eyed. He was not the only Kosovan to be celebrating.
When, half an hour before, he saw Xhaka’s shot slam into the back of the net from 20 yards, Arsene Wenger might have wondered why he couldn’t have done this sort of thing more often at the Emirates Stadium.
For the Swiss midfielder the equaliser would also have been a sublime moment. The ball had come to him from Shaqiri’s blocked shot. Xhaka’s own boots, minus the Kosovan flag, met the ricochet as well as he can ever have done and celebrated by trying to make a double-headed Albanian eagle with his hands – which is not something you are taught to do on Blue Peter. This was a reference to his father – a Kosovan of Albanian descent who was jailed by the Serbian government for agitating for independence.
Once the politics and football had cleared away. Switzerland, many of whose side including the manager, Vladimir Petkovic, a native of Sarajevo, are from what used to be called Yugoslavia, went to celebrate with their fans who made up perhaps a quarter of the stadium, knowing they had nearly made it. A win over Costa Rica will see them through to the knockout phase. Brazil and Serbia will fight to the death in Moscow’s Spartak Stadium.
This, in its way, was a better display as Switzerland had produced to draw with Brazil in Rostov. Now, as then, they had to come from behind against a side that would have imagined itself favourites to win.
For pre-match inspiration, Switzerland had the photograph of Valon Behrami leaving Neymar flat on his back in Rostov which was published in every Swiss newspaper. The game-plan was once more to frustrate. “We obviously want to win,” said their defender, Fabian Schaer before kick-off. “But we cannot under any circumstances lose the game.”
If that was the plan, it was in shreds after five minutes. Switzerland were utterly unable to contain Aleksandar Mitrovic, for which they might have paid with more than one goal. Within the opening 20 minutes, he had produced three headers and one overhead kick which swished over Yann Sommer’s bar.
It was the second of Mitrovic’s headers that put Serbia ahead. It was similar to the first – a cross from Dusan Tadic that Mitrovic met practically on the penalty spot. Sommer saved brilliantly. A few moments later, Tadic delivered an almost identical cross that Mitrovic met almost identically. This time, Sommer had no chance.
The stadium was pulsing with noise that was almost entirely Serbian who had taken over Kaliningrad much as the Croats had done before their 2-0 defeat of Nigeria on Saturday night.
There are deep, strong links between Serbia and Russia that were responsible for, among other things, the First World War. The Serbian fans exploited it relentlessly, with banners that proclaimed “Serbs and Russians are Brothers Forever” and chants of “Serbia, Russia”.
The Swiss appeared stunned by the opening exchanges but slowly, groggily they found their feet. Just before the half hour, came the moment they should have equalised. Blerim Dzemaili anticipated Steven Zuber’s call beautifully and met it before two of his markers.
Dzemaili, another member of the Yugoslav diaspora, did not quite connect as well as he had timed its run. It was still well saved by Vladimir Stojkovic but Dzemaili lay on his back, staring up at the scudding clouds, wondering if his team would get another chance as good.
They did and the chances fell to precisely the kind of people who had a passionate desire to take them.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies