Here GERRY FARRELL explores the complex story of the Xhaka brothers – Granit and Taulant – and how one can feel at home or a belonging to more than one nation.
Jack Reynolds earned a certain notoriety in the final decade of the 19th century when he became the first (excluding own goals) and to date the only player to ever score both for and against England. Having grown-up in County Antrim and made his name in the Irish League with Distillery and later Ulster F.C. Reynolds was quickly selected by Ireland and at the age of 21 scored against England in only his second international appearance. There was only one problem with Jack furthering his Irish career – he was born in Blackburn. During a successful spell at Aston Villa his English birth ensured that he would win eight caps (scoring 3 goals) before he won his final England cap in 1897 at the age of 28.
While the idea of players swapping nationality, of fluid borders, identities and career progression might seem like a very modern phenomenon, as we can see from the case of Jack Reynolds it is something that is almost as old as international football itself. Where one is born or where one feels connected to, either by upbringing or by family.
Nor is the issue of what national team you represent limited to football. The IRB are changing residency rules in Rugby Union from 3 years to 5 years before foreign born players can declare for their country of residence. A couple of years ago the South African born, England cricketer Kevin Pietersen got into a Twitter row with Jack Wilshere over his belief that only home-grown players should play for the national side. While in athletics there is criticism from some over what is seen by some as the cynical recruitment of East African runners into the running singlets of European nations.
Charles Stewart Parnell once proclaimed that ‘No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country “Thus far shalt thou go and no further”’. Could this sentiment on national self-determination apply to sport and national identity? Does anyone have the right to tell an athlete where they are from or who it is that they represent? What makes someone English, Irish, German, Ghanaian? Is it strictly limited to the place that you are born? What about family connections? Why can’t it be the place you grow up? The place you are connected to?
It gets complicated. What happens when you can’t go back to the place because it’s not safe there? What happens when where you’re from isn’t even regarded as a country by many of those around you? Say you’re good enough to perform at that highest level; who do you represent? The decision can be different even when you’re part of the same family.
In the case of brothers Granit (Arsenal) and Taulant Xhaka (FC Basel) the facts are fairly clear. They were both born in Basel, Switzerland. Taulant was born in 1991, Granit just over a year later. In a recent interview Granit has spoken about the reasons his father fled from Yugoslavia not long before the outbreak of war. He explained this decision was motivated by the experiences of his father Ragip, then a student at the university of Pristina in Kosovo who ended up spending three and a half years as a political prisoner in the former Yugoslavia.
After years of regular beatings and intimidation, Ragip was released and left with his young wife for Switzerland in 1990, a year before the birth of his oldest son. The town of his birth – Kuršumlija – is today within the borders of Serbia, just north of Kosovo.
The situation with Kosovo is complex: while recognised by some states when it declared itself independent in 2008 many still do not view it as an independent nation. It’s larger neighbour Serbia views it as an autonomous province of a wider Serbia and this view is backed by Serbian allies like Russia. Only eight of the fifteen members of the UN security council, where Russia is a permanent member, recognise Kosovan independence. However, one organisation that has fully recognised Kosovo is FIFA. The nascent nation began playing friendly matches in 2014 but officially was welcomed into FIFA in May 2016. This created a dilemma for the Xhaka brothers.
By this stage Granit and Taulant were already established internationals, having come through the underage systems of the Swiss national team, Granit was the first to be capped in a senior game in 2011. Some three years later Taulant was picked for Albania, upon selection he stated that he didn’t want to make the same “mistake” as his brother. Both brothers had played important roles for their nations in qualifying for Euro 2016, for Albania this would be their first ever senior tournament. In the case of Taulant, he had been on the pitch when in a qualifier with Serbia a set of bizarre circumstances unfolded as a drone was flown over the pitch bearing a flag of “Greater Albania”. This sparked pitch invasions and ultimately saw the abandonment of the game which was declared a 3-0 walkover victory for Serbia.
As chance would have it the Euro group stages had seen Albania and Switzerland drawn in the same group, each nation’s opening match. In the stands, their mother Elmaze wore a half and half top emblazoned with half a swiss flag and half an Albanian eagle. Their father Ragip noted that having one son represent Albania, the home of their parents, and one representing Switzerland, the childhood home of the brothers, was the best representation of their family. It became the first time in the almost 60-year history of the European Championships that two brothers had faced each other as members of opposition teams.
It was Granit who emerged the victor in the game. Switzerland prevailed 1-0 after an early goal; Granit was named Man of the Match while older brother Taulant was substituted after an hour, cutting a frustrated figure as he left the pitch. Fraternal bonds, however, trumped either despondency or triumphalism as Granit and Taulant swapped shirts at the end of the game. Albania performed credibly in their first major tournament; a final group game win over Romania saw them finish third in their group though this wasn’t enough to see them progress. Switzerland finished second behind France but were defeated on penalties by Poland in the next stage of the competition. It was Granit who missed the crucial second penalty after a tight game.
Only a month after the Euros had finished Granit Xhaka released an open letter about his international future. FIFA would not let him play for Kosovo because he had played for Switzerland at Euro 2016, after Kosovo had become a full member of both UEFA and FIFA. The same would obviously apply for any of the eligible players from the Albania team who had competed at the Euros. Granit, who had previously expressed a willingness to compete for a new Kosovan national side, seemed to now be precluded from doing so.
In a statement ahead of Switzerland’s first World Cup qualifiers Granit addressed the issue of nationality, perhaps to address any notions of divided loyalties, saying:
‘Playing for Switzerland is a dream for me, but when I think about the Albanians in Switzerland who will be represented by my presence in the national team, I feel proud, because I will be a good ambassador for every Albanian who lives and works in Switzerland.’
In subsequent interviews he has spoken further about his identity and his feelings about being a key player in the Swiss side.
‘Switzerland is my home, it’s where I was born and grew up, but I will never forget my parents’ roots. My blood is Albanian and nobody can take that away from me. My heart is 50:50 – I can’t say I’m more of one than the other. I have two homes, Switzerland and Kosovo, and that’s how it will always stay. I’m grateful for what Switzerland has done for my parents, for us. You can’t forget that. As I said, I was born and grew up there. I went to school there, I took my first steps there – both in football and in my private life. It will always be my home.’
Xhaka is not the only member of the Swiss side to find himself in a similar situation. Xerdan Shaqiri and Valon Behrami are just two other teammates who could have declared for Kosovo before the Euros, but rather than seeing this as a weakness with players harbouring loyalties to other nations, Granit has described it as a strength saying;
‘In the Swiss national team, we have players with links to many different countries, maybe people who don’t just have Swiss roots. That’s why it’s very important that we respect each other, and that really works well in our team.’
Older brother Taulant had been given the freedom of a nearby Albanian city when he – along with some of his teammates – had grabbed the greater Albania flag from the drone flown over their Euro qualifier game. He had been seen as a staunch defender of his nation’s honour in a time of provocation. When nations that have suffered so much from disruption and violence as Albania and the Balkan states have it is understandable that nationalist sentiment runs high. That FIFA has more member nations than the UN suggests the importance of football as a nation signifier. But as the story of the brothers Xhaka shows, nation isn’t as reductive as where you’re born or the notion of the “blood in your veins”. It is also possible to feel a loyalty or to identify with more than one place, whether that be Albania, Switzerland or Kosovo. In the case of the brothers Xhaka, born in the same city only 18 months apart it seems strangely appropriate that two brothers, set in competition against each other for different nations should represent a greater, unifying truth. No more than borders, identities are seldom fixed.