The 2016 European Football Championship in France is anything but far away. Apart from all the football excitement to come, there is one premiere in the history of the tournament that we know of and we can look forward to. If neither of the two players picks up an injury in the meantime we will most probably witness the first “brotherly duel” of players playing for two different national teams at a EURO tournament. We are of course talking about the game between the Swiss and the Albanian national team and the brothers in question being Arsenal London’s newest acquisition Granit Xhaka and FC Basel’s Taulant Xhaka.
Whilst Granit will play for the country in which he was born and bred, Switzerland, his slightly older brother Taulant long ago decided to represent Albania. Both of them were born in Switzerland to Albanian parents who migrated from Kosovo during Yugoslavia’s turbulent 1980s.
Their biography is however no isolated case, but reflects these of many of their compatriots in both the Albanian and the Swiss national team. The “brotherly duel” is however not just a sporting duel, but peculiarly encapsulates complex questions of national identity and patriotic loyalty. It was thus not a huge surprise that since the EURO group’s announcement, this specific game and duel has received particular media scrutiny and caused broad public debates surpassing the field of football focusing on migration citizenship and the boundaries of multiculturalism.
Back in 2009 when Switzerland won the FIFA U-17 World Cup, football and the composition of the team, became a symbol for a newly (re-)discovered multiculturalism in Swiss society. After all, the 21 players in the title winning squad had their family roots in 12 different countries. Some of them were also at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2014, where 15 out of 23 players in the Swiss team had a so called “immigrant background”; a record at the tournament. This diversification was, however, seemingly not welcomed by everyone in Switzerland or even the nation team. Of all people, it was Juventus Turin player Stephan Lichtsteiner, a key player in the national team, who kicked off a debate over how the team was composed and who was playing for it.
The debate started when the Sarajevo-born national team head-coach Vladimir Petkovic, who is a long naturalized Swiss citizen, decided not to nominate Tranquillo Barnetta und Pirmin Schwegler for a European qualifier in March 2015. Lichtsteiner brought the topic up in an interview. By underlining that he did not want to initiate a debate about “real” and “other” Swiss players, he provoked (intentionally or unintentionally) the exact opposite. Lichtsteiner did however explicitly say that “such” decisions could lead to Swiss people being alienated from “their” own national team and not being able to identify which such a representation any longer. What followed was an intense public debate about the role of so-called “Secondos”, Swiss-born players (and people) of immigrant parents, in the Swiss national team and more importantly Swiss society.
The particular focus was on Swiss team players with family roots in the Balkans such as Granit Xhaka, Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri or FC Watford’s Valon Behrami.
The debate itself centered on the question of societal change “caused” by migration and the “fear” of such changes. In a country politically dominated by conservative thought, football often represents one of the few social spaces in which youth from immigrant milieus can leave these behind in order to gain economic success and social recognition. One can identify this as one of the reasons why the “Secondos”, of which many come from disenfranchised communities, account for a majority in the national team whilst being a minority in Swiss society.
These players, however, are often implicitly expected to display a special and particular effort to assimilate and exhibit some sort of an unbreakable loyalty towards a society that does not fully see them as being a constitutive part of it; you get the difficulty of this ambivalence. This particular scrutiny often also operates with “classic” tropes of Balkanism when “these” people do not act accordingly to how it is expected of them by dominant Swiss identity perceptions. As long as the national team is successful though, such a national team constellation it is welcomed, or maybe it would be better to say accepted. Should the success stay away, it can quickly turn against this multicultural concept, as we saw with the French national team at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
The entire debate is not that much different in Albania, where it also focuses on identity and national loyalty. And it is not that new either as this will not be the first encounter of the two teams. Albania already had played a game against Switzerland during the qualification campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Back then, in September 2012, Granit Xhaka spoke to the Swiss daily newspaper “Tagesanzeiger” complaining that people in his “homeland” (by which he meant Albania) were calling “them” (the “Secondos” of Albanian descent) traitors because they chose to represent Switzerland. His complain illustrated the complexity of his lived and felt identification(s) and identities: Albania as “homeland”, Switzerland as “choice”.The reality of such gray zones and blurred identifications has however very rarely the space to be articulated in heated and polarizing public debates.
As Granit Xhaka further explained, when a player understands himself as a member of a nation or an “imagined community” this has to be exhibited through his choice of national team: “In Switzerland I’m seen by some as a foreigner, in Albania I am Swiss."
The participation at their first big international football tournament has furthermore brought the atmosphere in Albania to a patriotic boiling point. One of the reasons also being that one managed to qualify in a qualifying group with the “arch-enemies” Serbia. The controversial fashion in which both games against Serbia ended only additionally ignited feelings of nation(alist) pride in Albanian society.
This complex debate only got more complicated over the last month which saw Kosovo accepted as the newest member of UEFA and subsequently to FIFA. It is too early to tell what impact the now reality of a Kosovar national team will have on future national teams of Albania and Switzerland, but there certainly will be one. Although there have already been some minor verbal skirmishes, national identity within the Albanian community is still predominately experienced as transnational and ethnically defined.
Back in late 2015, when the friendly game between the two countries ended in a brotherly draw it was celebrated as a patriotic all-Albanian event. Whether this portrayed national unity will remain untouched once the two teams meet in an actual competition or fight over football talents is rather questionable though.
When the brothers Xhaka meet on June 11th in Lens, it will not be a game just about three points, but also a game about social change and new national realities. However, as fiercely as the game, questions about squad compilations or decisions for or against a national team may be debated, one may not forget that we are talking about professional football players. These decisions are often declared as patriotic or emotionally driven, but in hindsight there are usually far more influenced by professional and economic reasons.
Or, as Granit Xhaka commented on his own choice of national team as well as his brother Taulant’s: “That’s very easy. In my case Albania had no interest and Switzerland did. With Taulant it was the other way around.”
*A shorter and modified version of this text first appeared in the Austrian football journal Ballesterer in German.