Granit Xhaka, the son of a political prisoner from the Balkans who plays in the World Cup

BarcelonaDifficult to find the way out, in the labyrinth of the Balkans. Whenever a World Cup comes around, the open wounds from when Yugoslavia broke into different pieces hurt again. At the match between Croatia and Canada, Croatian fans displayed a banner reading “Knin 95” directed at Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who was chanted offensively. He responded by showing them three fingers of his hand, the Serbian nationalist salute. Borjan was born in Knin, a city within the region known as Krajina, in Croatia. When the Croats gained independence from Yugoslavia, the Serb-majority Krajina region also gained independence from the Croats. The Serbian Republic of Krajina lasted from 1991 until 1995, when the Croatian army occupied the area. Thousands of Serbian civilians fled, among them the Borjans. This family would end up in Canada, where Milan Borjan made a career as a goalkeeper. He now plays for Red Star Belgrade in Serbia, where he has been seen wearing shirts with the slogan “Serbia Krajina”. The Croatian fans’ banner was to remind him of the year he became a refugee when Knin came under the control of the Croatian government.

It was not the only incident at the World Cup related to the Balkans, since before the Serbia-Brazil match an image of the Serbian dressing room where they had hung a banner with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” went viral on the networks. FIFA fined the Federation of this country. A team, the Serbian, that needs to defeat the Swiss in the last group game if they want to be in the round of 16. It’s almost the same script as the 2018 World Cup, when Switzerland qualified by defeating the Serbians 2-1 with goals from Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka. Two players who celebrated goals by making a hand gesture imitating an eagle. In other words, an Albanian nationalist gesture.

Almost 8% of the Swiss population had, at the time, Yugoslav passports. And many of them are Albanian. The father of Granit Xhaka, the starting midfielder in this match where Shaqiri looks set to be sidelined through injury, was jailed during the years of Slobodan Milosevic’s presidency in Yugoslavia. Kosovo, a region that Serbs feel is theirs, since it is where the first medieval Serbian kingdom was born, has been a region with an Albanian majority for decades. During the days of Yugoslavia, Kosovo Albanians demanded more autonomy and respect for their culture, but Milosevic’s rise to power in Belgrade meant just the opposite. This leader repressed the Albanians and imprisoned many of them, like Xhaka’s father, who, after being released from a prison where he had been tortured, fled to Switzerland with his family. An estimated 200,000 Kosovar Albanians live in Switzerland, a key country for the Kosovar economy thanks to remittances sent home by relatives. Even former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj lived in Switzerland, where he was a karate coach.

Playing against Serbia is therefore special for players like Xhaka. The Arsenal midfielder, who trained in Basel, remembers how his father told them everything he had suffered when he was young. Ragip Xhaka was 22 years old and a student at the University of Pristina when he went out to demonstrate in defense of the Albanian language and against the Yugoslav central government. He was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison. “They locked him in a small cell with four other men. With little space. They let them out for 10 minutes every day. The first few days nothing happened, but then the torture came,” the footballer told the British newspaper The Guardian years ago. The policemen were all Serbs. “My father’s uncle was also in prison. He had already been there for some time when my father entered there, as he had been sentenced to 15 years for the same, to demand more democracy,” he recalled. “After three and a half years, they released my father and his uncle on the same day. They must have agreed not to cause more trouble so they could go outside, they never explained. But it didn’t take them long to leave for Switzerland.” added Granit, who always speaks with great respect for his mother. “When they arrested the father, they had been together for just three months. And despite everything, she waited for him. And then she raised us all.”

The Xhakas settled in Basel, where both Granit and his brother Taulant excelled as players. After making his debut at Basel, Granit left for German Borussia Mönchengladbach and is now at Arsenal. And defending Switzerland in the World Cup. “I owe a lot to Switzerland, a country that hosted us. That’s why I like to defend it, although it would also have been nice to play with the Kosovo team,” he usually admits. Surely thinking of his father, when Granit Xhaka scored against the Serbs four years ago now he made that Albanian nationalist gesture, imitating the eagle on the flag with his hands, which resulted in him receiving a fine. Who knows if he will do it again, if he scores again for the Serbs in a World Cup where a few men who fled the war are playing, like Dejan Lovren, a Croat who left Bosnia in this story we already told, a Serbian refugee of war like Milan Borjan or the Kosovars of Switzerland.

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