Granit Xhaka: The story of a proud Albanian whose father was once a political prisoner

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Xhaka's decision to celebrate against Serbia with an eagle gesture had a meaning which went beyond showing support to his country of heritage

'Provocative', 'outrageous' and a 'political statement'. Those were the terms being labelled at Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri’s goal celebrations against Serbia on Friday, with both players making an Albanian eagle gesture with their hands.

When delving deeper into the world of Arsenal midfielder Xhaka, in particular, the meaning behind his celebration has huge resonance for more sensitive reasons than many would believe.

While Shaqiri was born in Kosovo, just like Xhaka, the similarities don’t stretch as far. Xhaka’s father Ragip was imprisoned and beaten in the former Yugoslavia for campaigning in favour of Kosovan independence.

Arsenal midfielder Xhaka has only given one interview to English media about his father’s story, speaking exclusively to the Guardian last season. He revealed that Xhaka Sr.’s decision to take part in demonstrations against the communist central government in Belgrade as a 22-year-old university student saw him spend three-and-a-half years as a political prisoner.

“As his son, the story is something that touches me very deeply – it is really, really in my heart,” Xhaka told the Guardian .

“To describe my dad properly, you have to appreciate the full depth of it. It’s so tragic. I sometimes ask him: ‘Tell it to me again', but I still don’t think he has revealed all of it. There have always been silent moments where I’ve felt he has swallowed something and not spilled out the truth.

“Maybe it was just too much and he wanted to spare his kids all the grief. He was a proud Kosovarian and he thought they had a right to exist. He was standing up for their rights and they were basic democratic rights – necessities, such as being able to vote. It was not only him.

“There were other people arrested, including his uncle, who had been jailed a number of years earlier. He got 15 years. It was strictly political. My dad was asking: ‘Why aren’t we democrats here? We deserve to be democrats. We deserve to be heard'.”

Xhaka Sr. was only let out of his cell for 10 minutes every day and those stories from the past serve as a reminder to the independence that was so strongly fought for. While Xhaka’s older brother Taulant plays for Albania, the decision to declare for Switzerland by Granit is one that many other players with a similar background have followed, including Valon Behrami and star man Shaqiri.

In 2016, the Swiss team were told not to make the politically-charged eagle gesture and FIFA’s decision to only fine Xhaka, Shaqiri and Stephan Lichtsteiner, the latter who doesn’t have ethnic Albanian heritage, is one that Behrami himself believes will not be repeated.

Granit Xhaka Switzerland 2018 World Cup

"Of course, we are happy that no one is suspended," he said.

 "It won't happen in the future because ... it won't be a special game like this.

"Maybe [the gesture] will happen with their club. But it won't happen at the World Cup."

Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic also dismissed the situation by saying “what has happened has happened” while Albania Prime Minister Edi Rama has opened a bank account and urged his compatriots to pay the fine for Xhaka and Shaqiri, writing on social media that the idea came about to show "thanks and gratitude to the two sportsmen" who brought joy to millions of Albanians.

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Indeed, the celebration is unlikely to be seen again unless the respective players come up against Serbian opposition for their clubs or country, but Xhaka’s point has now been made and the fine is more a case of following procedure than stopping it from happening again.

The struggle to fight for what Xhaka Sr. – and thousands of others – believed in is now over, but situations continue to arise where footballers and professional athletes use their communal power and influence to broadcast increasingly emotional and politically-charged messages around the world.

For Xhaka, it was a passionate message that went beyond the wings of the red eagle.

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