Serbia 2 Switzerland 3
Qatar December 3, 2022 : There was always a chance it could come down to something Granit Xhaka might do and in the closing stages this game, aflame with Balkan tensions, felt like it might tip into violence as the Arsenal midfielder clashed with Fulham’s Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Eventually they were pulled apart although perhaps the Argentinian referee did not see everything that was said or done in the last minutes of a win for Switzerland secured second spot on Group G and a second round tie with Portugal on Tuesday. It left Serbia bottom of Group G with just a single point, in spite of being the top goalscorer in the group.
In the second half, there was a warning from the Stadium 974 announcer that “all discriminatory chants and gestures” should cease. What they were - hard to say in the immediate aftermath. The allegation was that it was the Serb fans’ offensive songs about Kosovans, as well as a three-fingered gesture which is intended to provoke. Dragan Stojkovic, the Serbia manager, would later say he had heard nothing from the fans.
The Serb bench cleared when Mitrovic was denied, correctly, a second half penalty. Stojkovic was caught by the cameras saying something alleged to be offensive. Xhaka, the Kosovan-heritage Switzerland captain, grabbed his crotch in provocation. Whether that is political or just plain obscenity was a matter to pick over afterwards.
Xhaka, who was Fifa’s man of the match, had decided to ignore the arguments. “You can hear from my voice that I am hoarse. It is a game with a lot of emotion. That's football. It was fair enough. We wanted to focus on football.” That was it. His manager Murat Yakin saw even less.
On the pitch at the end, Xhaka had put on a shirt bearing the name “Jashiri”. He said it was in support of his Swiss team-mate Ardon Jashiri, 20. Ardem Jashiri was one of the founders of the Kosovan Liberation Army, a Kosovan hero who was killed in 1998 after a three-day siege of his home by Yugoslav military. Xhaka said it referred only to Ardon and not Ardem.
Either way, Xhaka and Mitrovic were hard to separate in the closing stages. There was anger and recriminations. It had started with Nikola Milenkovic going head-to-head with Xhaka. More Serbs piled in. Players from both sides grappled and argued deep into injury time. The referee Fernando Andrés Rapallini was barely in control. Serbia could see the end coming and once again it was Switzerland inflicting defeat at a World Cup.
Switzerland had taken the lead in the first half, thrown it away and then won the game with a second half goal from the Nottingham Forest midfielder Remo Freuler, a second half substitute. For the nine minutes they were behind, Switzerland were heading out the tournament. Serbia had looked dangerous in that first half and yet they never truly created the chances that might be expected at 3-2 down for most of the second half.
A strong political undercurrent to this one when, inevitably, Xherdan Shaqiri tucked one in at the near post after 20 minutes. None of the interlocking thumbs and fluttering fingers of his Kosovo flag-inspired celebration that so inflamed the game against Serbia at the last World Cup in 2018. Shaqiri, the Swiss team’s other famous Kosovan heritage player, did not entirely leave it alone. His shot had been teed up nicely by Djibril Sow.
Shaqiri cupped his ears to the Serbia fans. Then as he ran away he jabbed his thumbs at the name on his back. Five World Cup goals in 11 career appearances in the competition is a good run.
The equaliser was a glorious header from Mitrovic running across the box from the right to left, guided across the goalkeeper Gregor Kobel and in the corner opposite to the direction in which the striker was going. Perfect in every way. Serbia were fired up. The defender Strahinja Pavlovic threw himself in front of a shot from Ruben Vargas and celebrated it like a goal. It may even have been struck directly at his head.
A Serb second goal came soon after from Juventus’ Dusan Vlahovic. Xhaka had got a foot to the ball but Vlahovic spun on it and wrongfooted Kobel with the angle of his shot. Just before half-time a fine equaliser from Switzerland. A tidy finish from Breel Embolo and Serbia were wide open down their left from where Sylvain Widmer crossed.
Freuler got what was the winner three minutes after half-time from the lay off from Vargas. Serbia just could not get back into it. Brazil’s defeat to Cameroon meant that Serbia were bottom of what was one of the most competitive groups of this World Cup first round. “My team said they wanted to make history,” Yakin said. “We were happy with this result and the way we played. We deserved to win.”