Hand it to Shaqiri but gestures don't impress coach

Xherdan Shaqiri making the eagle emblem of Kosovo after scoring Switzerland's late winner against Serbia at the Kaliningrad Stadium on Friday.
Xherdan Shaqiri making the eagle emblem of Kosovo after scoring Switzerland's late winner against Serbia at the Kaliningrad Stadium on Friday.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KALININGRAD • It was Xherdan Shaqiri's right boot that made the headlines before Friday's match, but it was his left boot, and his hands, that were the story after the game ended.

His 90th-minute goal in a 2-1 win over Serbia was the final act of a pulsating match. It was also a game dominated by questions of identity and belonging, of war and peace.

Three members of Switzerland's starting XI, including Friday's scorers Granit Xhaka and Shaqiri as well as Valon Behrami, were born, or have roots, in Kosovo, an ethnically Albanian province that fought a war of independence against Serb-dominated Yugoslav forces in the late 1990s.

Shaqiri has never shied away from his roots. Before the World Cup, he posted a photo on his Instagram account showing the boots he would wear for the tournament.

On the left boot's heel was the flag of Switzerland. On the right, the flag of Kosovo.

"If he loves Kosovo so much and decides to flaunt the flag, why did he refuse a chance to play for their team?" asked Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic last week.

Mitrovic did not just fire back, he fired Serbia in front at the Kaliningrad Stadium, heading past Yann Sommer in the fifth minute.

Xhaka's 52rd-minute piledriver set up the Swiss comeback.

And, when Shaqiri broke free of Serbia's offside trap in the dying moments and slid the ball with his left boot, his Swiss boot, under Serbia goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, he peeled away and made a two-handed eagle gesture with his fingers.

It is a nationalistic sign that many with ethnic Albanian roots make to mimic the black eagle in Albania's flag.

Xhaka, whose Albanian father was imprisoned in Serbia in the 1980s, made it after his equaliser.

Asked about the gesture after the game, Shaqiri said: "In football you have emotions. You can see what I did. It was just emotion.''

The biggest impact of his winner was to tighten the race for the top two spots in Group E.

Brazil and Switzerland each have four points and Serbia have three. Switzerland need only a draw against Costa Rica in their final Group E match on Wednesday to reach the knockout stages.

Although the win put Switzerland in pole position to make it out of a tough group, Swiss coach Vladimir Petkovic was unimpressed with the celebrations.

"You should never mix politics and football, it's good to be a fan and important to show respect," he said.

"It's clear that emotions surface. I think on and off the pitch, we need to steer away from politics in football and we should focus on this as a sport that brings people together."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 24, 2018, with the headline 'Hand it to Shaqiri but gestures don't impress coach'. Print Edition | Subscribe