Back in June 2011, 18-year-old Granit Xhaka was faced with a tough decision that would ultimately define his career as a footballer.
Having grown up in Switzerland to Albanian parents with Kosovan roots, the midfielder was eligible to represent one of three national teams, but opted to make his debut for his country of birth.
Now, 11 years and 107 caps later, he is about to participate in his third World Cup, and his first as captain of Switzerland - proudly leading by example and instilling the same values of cultural respect that helped him settle in the national team setup.
“Switzerland is my home, it’s where I was born and grew up, but I will never forget my parents’ roots"
“In the Swiss national team we have players with links to many different countries, maybe people who don’t just have Swiss roots,” he told Arsenal.com back in 2017. “That’s why it’s very important that we respect each other, and that really works well in our team.
“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.”
Looking back to where it all started, it is rather apt that his international career began in north London - at Wembley Stadium when the Swiss drew 2-2 with England in a Euro 2012 qualifier.
He quickly made himself a mainstay of the side, and his first taste of tournament football would come at the 2014 World Cup, when he played in all four of his nation's games in Brazil. He scored in a 5-2 defeat against France, and that tournament saw them reach the last-16 when they were defeated by eventual finalists Argentina - which would a theme of his international career.
"To play in a tournament like the Euros against your brother is something you never forget"
Two years later, Granit was selected for Euro 2016, which put him in a difficult position. The Swiss were drawn against Albania, setting up a meeting with his older brother Taulant.
The pair have always been close. With just 18 months separating them, they were practically inseparable as children and still speak multiple times a day. The brothers had both represented the country of their birth at youth level but, while Granit continued to play for Switzerland, Taulant switched his allegiance.
“The feeling to play against your own country is unbelievable,” Granit explained. “You can't explain that in words. But then to play in a tournament like the Euros against your brother is something you never forget.
“My mum had a shirt which was half Switzerland and half Albania. The first thing our parents told us was to forget for 90 minutes that we are brothers. They told us to do our jobs and that after 90 minutes, we’d be together again.
“I spoke with my brother before the game and I said to him: ‘listen, if I need to tackle you, can I?’. It was about doing our job. We couldn’t change that, so we focused and did our job right so nobody could say something to us.”
Granit came out on top that day, with his side picking up a 1-0 win before two successive draws helped them into the knockout rounds again, which ended with a penalty shootout defeat to Poland, with Xhaka missing the decisive kick.
After that huge low came a high though, as his impressive displays during the previous two tournaments helped persuade Arsene Wenger to snap him up from Borussia Monchengladbach. Further acknowledgement of his leadership qualities came when he was handed the captain’s armband for his nation for the first time in October 2016, cementing his status as an influential figure for his country.
"Every single one of us is proud to play for Switzerland because something like this is only once in your lifetime"
That would prove to be the case two years later when he helped his team reach the World Cup in Russia, and a second crack at the global showpiece. A crucial goal from Granit helped kick-start their campaign, as he netted an equaliser against Serbia in a game they went on to win and help them out of the group, but again the last-16 proved to the be final frontier as Sweden edged past the Swiss.
It seemed like getting to the last eight was a hurdle too far, but that all changed last summer at Euro 2020. After sneaking out of their group as one of the best third-placed teams and drawing France, another round-of-16 exit loomed for Granit, who was by now skippering his side at the tournament.
However, in one of the games of the tournament, they claimed a 3-3 draw against world champions, whom they beat on penalties to reach the quarter-finals of a European Championships for the first time. Man of the Match in that game was Granit.
“I think I had my first match in 2011 for Switzerland, today 10 years afterwards I’m here as the captain and can lead this team,” he reflected post-match that ay. “It’s an unbelievable story, I had to suffer a lot in my career, I was criticised a lot, but praised as well, in the national team and at my club, but it’s hard work.
“People only see what happens on the pitch but they don’t see the work behind it which you need to put in, so we are very proud what Switzerland has given us and that today we were able to participate here, play here, and every single one of us is proud to play for Switzerland because something like this is only once in your lifetime.”
His presence and leadership was dearly missed against Spain in the next round, as Switzerland came within a whisker of going into the final four when Spain eliminated them on spot-kicks with Granit forced to miss out through suspension.
However, last week saw him complete a World Cup hat-trick in Qatar, as he helped his side to an opening game win against Cameroon, putting them once again on the brink of progressing to the knockout stages. Having proved they have what it takes to go deeper into tournaments, who knows how far Granit's latest adventure may last?
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