How much power can a captain have?

The pitiful failure of the Swiss footballers in the World Cup Round of 16 against Portugal is also a defeat for Granit Xhaka. The captain wanted to be world champion, but caused dissonance again.

Like a volcano: Granit Xhaka in the Serbia game after the third Swiss goal.

Laurent Gillieron / Keystone

The exit far after midnight has something symbolic, something irreconcilable, it is once again the pure granite Xhaka. When a Serbian journalist asked him about the Serbia game during a discussion with the media late on Tuesday evening, Adrian Arnold, the football association’s media director, resolutely intervened. Xhaka stomps away. Upright and proud, but also damaged and sad.

It’s not an ideal sign when a footballer needs protection when certain issues are at stake. If the captain of the Swiss selection does not appear for an interview on Swiss television after a 1:6 defeat in the World Cup round of 16 against Portugal. When Xhaka then speaks to the journalists, he emphasizes quite intimidatingly at the beginning that he only answers questions that he likes – and no “shitty questions”.

Good days, bad days

It is Xhaka’s vocabulary that allows us to look deeply. He’s always involved in fights. On a good day, that might make him the best Swiss footballer in history. Then he goes ahead, dominant and confident, he is a strong organizer, a smart midfielder who sets the beat and pace; that pulls the players along, makes them better and bigger than they are.

And then there are the bad days. Xhaka failed to prevent Tuesday’s defeat against Portugal but of course it would be unfair to single him out as the sole culprit in the Swiss debacle. On the other hand, he is the leader, the spokesman, the highly ambitious man who clearly stated that he wanted to be world champion. He is the player without borders.

Seen in this way, Xhaka failed, as always at tournaments where he made Switzerland dream, with strong performances and strong words. And was not ready at the decisive moment. Maybe couldn’t be ready.

In 2014 he played on the wing at the World Cup in the round of 16 against Argentina. In 2016 he was the only one to miss a penalty in the penalty shoot-out against Poland in the round of 16 of the European Championship. In 2018, back at the World Cup, he played without energy against Sweden in the round of 16. In 2021 he was suspended in the quarter-finals of the European Championship against Spain because of two warnings as a result of complaints.

And on Tuesday he looks mentally exhausted against Portugal like in 2018 after the Serbia match, he doesn’t rebel, he’s lost on the field.

The decisive scenes of Portugal – Switzerland.


The father threatened a Xhaka critic on TV

It may be Granit Xhaka’s destiny to fall so low because he flies so high. He has to accept that there are people who might get the impression that he sometimes puts himself above the team, even above the association. The SFV had done a lot for eight months, top representatives had traveled to London several times to show Xhaka how important it would be to keep calm in the Serbia game this time.

Xhaka promised improvement, it shouldn’t get out of hand like in 2018 with the double-headed eagle celebration. But Xhaka reacted to the hostilities of the Serbs: grabbed his crotch, insults against the mothers of the Serbian footballers, the action with the Jashari jersey as a subtle provocation.

In Serbia and Kosovo, few believed Xhaka was wearing the shirt in honor of team-mate Ardon Jashari – and not because of Adem Jashari, who fought for Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. Interestingly, however, his statement caught on in parts of the Swiss media.

The question remains: Why did the association work for this Serbia game for eight months if Xhaka then uses the stage again for personal settlements? Doesn’t the association have to feel silly? In the SFV, one speaks positively about the captain behind closed doors and stands behind him. Even if Xhaka may have left a lot of energy and emotions against Serbia like in 2018. Energy and emotions that were missing in the round of 16.

So the Causa Xhaka is an association story: how much power can a captain have? Is the SFV strong enough to set limits for Xhaka? It’s a media story: How do you weigh Xhaka’s behavior? What personal relationships play? It’s a story about how much a footballer can afford to be part of a team. And about when the association, coach, teammates should intervene and discipline the captain.

And last but not least, it is a family story. Xhaka’s father Ragip called on a talk show on the Kosovan broadcaster T7 on Sunday evening because he was upset about the Kosovan feminist Zana Avdiu, who also criticized Granit Xhaka on Facebook for his “sexual assault” (grabbing his own crotch) in the Serbian Game criticized and called, among other things, “street boys”. The father said the Xhaka family never surrendered and never will.

And then he said: “I warn you again: you should be careful what you write about the family.” When Avdiu asked what else would happen, Granit Xhaka’s father said: «I’ll tell you later what happens. You will have to answer for yourself in every respect. But when the time comes, it will already be too late, I guarantee you that with my life. Because you don’t know the Xhaka family.”

This story was published on several Swiss portals a few hours before the Swiss World Cup round of 16 against Portugal. She reveals a lot about the Xhakas and how they might prefer to deal with “shitty questions”. It’s hard to gauge what all of this triggered in Granit Xhaka so close to what is arguably the biggest game of his career to date. The father said on the talk show that he was in contact with Granite “day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute”.

In Germany someone like Xhaka is missing

Many people and media in Switzerland have accepted Xhaka’s manner and uncontrollability because he makes them dream of becoming world champions. Everyone knows what Xhaka is capable of on a good day. But no one can honestly claim that their behavior on bad days is exemplary.

Are the words of the ZDF expert Christoph Kramer sufficient as an explanation? Kramer, once Xhaka’s teammate in Mönchengladbach, said a few days ago: “You can’t get that out of Granit Xhaka anymore. But that’s totally okay too, because that’s the only way he’s become the player he is through this character. I think such scenes are a shame – but that’s part of Granit Xhaka.”

Interestingly, after the embarrassing elimination of the German national team in the preliminary round, it was said in Germany that someone like Xhaka, someone with fire, grinta and self-confidence, was missing.

Granit Xhaka is thirty years old, he will not change fundamentally. For the SFV, the national coach Murat Yakin and the other leading players, it should be about involving Xhaka even better – and at the same time setting limits for him. The next generation of players around Manuel Akanji, Djibril Sow, Breel Embolo, maybe Denis Zakaria can be self-confident enough to make more demands.

And: Maybe the Swiss won’t be able to play against Serbia in the first round of the next World Cup.

The national team flies back to Switzerland on Thursday. Without granite Xhaka. He left Doha on Wednesday afternoon for Dubai for his Arsenal club’s training camp.

Exhausted and promised too much again: Granit Xhaka after the end of the Portugal game.

Exhausted and promised too much again: Granit Xhaka after the end of the Portugal game.

Laurent Gillieron / EPO

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