Of all the people, it had to be them. Suddenly, in the last minute, Xherdan Shaqiri was racing away, Serbs in pursuit but unable to catch him before he slipped the ball under Vladimir Stojkovic. It was the goal that defeated Serbia and put Switzerland in a strong position to progress to the next round, but it was also much more than that. As he turned and screamed, he took his shirt off, flexed his muscles and performed a double-eagle celebration, a recreation of the Albanian flag. Alongside him, Granit Xhaka did the same – for the second time.
Xhaka had scored the equaliser, thumping in from 20 yards, now Shaqiri had the winner. Two Kosovans, two goalscorers, in a stadium where Russian and Serbian fans had come together, supporting a team that Shaqiri and Xhaka do not see as simple opponents. Shaqiri had the Kosovan flag stitched to his boot. Xhaka’s father was imprisoned and beaten in the former Yugoslavia for campaigning in favour of Kosovan independence and his brother Taulant plays for Albania. Together with Valon Behrami, they had been whistled by a crowd that chanted “Serbia-Russia! Serbia-Russia!” A banner declared the two countries “brothers”.
Xhaka and Shaqiri goal celebrations bring Balkan politics to World Cup
They had enjoyed the first half of this game, in which Serbia looked far superior, but had watched as they were hauled back early in the second, and beaten at the death. There could be few complaints either: in the final, frantic 30 minutes, Switzerland, emboldened by their changes and led by Shaqiri, had gone for them. It had not seemed likely since the moment Dusan Tadic cut back on the right and curled in a lovely cross for Aleksander Mitrovic to head past Yann Sommer from seven yards.
The game was only five minutes old when the goal was scored, but it hadn’t been Serbia’s first opportunity – from virtually the same spot, Mitrovic had drawn a sharp save from the goalkeeper a minute before, this time supplied by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic – and it wouldn’t be the last either. The same three men were at the heart of everything Serbia did, Tadic, Mitrovc and Milinkovic-Savic combining superbly at a time when all Switzerland could aspire to was resistance.
For the Swiss, every ball in was a drama, and there were many of them early on. Mitrovic controlled one on the chest and sent an overhead kick sailing just past the bar. Slowly, though, this became a game, Shaqiri increasingly involved. Blerim Dzemaili couldn’t quite guide Steven Zuber’s pass then bafflingly chose to cross when he should have shot. At the other end, Tadic, Mitrovic and Milinkovic-Savic threatened still and they might have doubled the lead when Dusko Tosic dived through the air, barely four yards out but failed to reach a corner, and Nemanja Matic couldn’t force it in at the far post. Next, Tadic struck a lovely shot on the bounce that flew just over.
Switzerland equalised soon after the break, Shaqiri’s blocked shot running to Xhaka who thumped it first time from 20 yards, bending the ball hard into the net. His hands forming an eagle amidst the noise, and the game turned frantic. Tadic delivered a cross from which Mitrovic, hauled to the floor, appealed for a penalty and then sent the ball fizzing across the six-yard box.
The best opportunity, though, came for the substitute Mario Gavranovic at the other end who hit the side-netting having been played through by Shaqiri. And Switzerland accelerated, the changes having an impact, Shaqiri running at the Serbs. Gavranovic got another superb chance when the other substitute, Breel Embolo, leaped superbly to head into his path, leaving him in front of goal 12 yards out.
That time, Stojkovic scrambled to save but he could do nothing when Shaqiri ran towards him at the last.