Everything was calm at the Switzerland training base in Montpellier.
The team could draw confidence from the 1-0 win over Albania in their opening Euro 2016 Group A tie and, with a tough test looming against Romania in Paris on Wednesday evening, there was a cautious optimism that at the fourth time of asking they could finally advance into the knockout stages of this competition.
Then Xherdan Shaqiri dropped what can only be described as a bombshell. “What if the coach of Kosovo wants me as the captain? Of course, I am thinking about it then,” the Switzerland winger said.
The context to the soundbite is that Kosovo have been recognised as an independent football nation. They were admitted by Uefa on 3 May and Fifa on 13 May, and they will contest qualification to the 2018 World Cup in Russia; they have been placed in a group that contains Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey and Finland.
Shaqiri was born in 1991 in Kosovo. His family emigrated to Switzerland when he was a baby and he declared for the country in which he was raised. The Stoke City player was given his senior international debut in 2010 by Ottmar Hitzfeld, the manager at the time, and he was a surprise inclusion in his squad for that year’s World Cup. He has since played at the 2014 World Cup. He is one of the glamour names in Vladimir Petkovic’s squad.
The possibility exists, however, that Shaqiri could be allowed to switch his allegiance, despite having played competitive matches for Switzerland, because Kosovo is a new nation. The suggestion he was open to the possibility has coloured the news agenda before the Romania game.
Petkovic has other players in his squad who were born in Kosovo or have Kosovo-Albanian heritage and, as such, would be eligible to switch – the midfielders Granit Xhaka, Valon Behrami, Admir Mehmedi and Blerim Dzemaili and the forward Shani Tarashaj. All of them bar Tarashaj, a 21-year-old prospect who has signed for Everton, started against Albania.
There is nervousness in Albania, too, that some of their players who are eligible to switch to Kosovo might choose to do so while some in the same situation with other countries, including Belgium’s Adnan Januzaj – the Manchester United winger – have indicated that they will think about it.
Xhaka and Behrami, Petkovic’s central midfield pair, said before the start of the championship that they would remain true to Switzerland, and the issue was supposed to have been parked until after the finals. Shaqiri has brought it back to the fore.
His timing has been criticised in Switzerland. Why now, as the team prepare for a crucial game? There have been the inevitable and understandable questions about the impact on team harmony.
Shaqiri is not backward in coming forwards. He is a player who craves the spotlight, who wants to be the top dog, and there are those in Switzerland who have interpreted his comment about Kosovo as a bit of self-promotion, an attempt to offer a reminder of his worth.
Shaqiri’s line about the captaincy could also be significant. When Petkovic took the difficult decision to drop the long-time captain, Gokhan Inler, after the midfielder had endured a frustrating season at Leicester City, he gave the armband to Stephan Lichtsteiner, the Juventus full-back, and named Xhaka and Behrami as vice-captains. Shaqiri was not happy and he said so. How could he have been excluded from the inner circle?
It is other Switzerland players who are currently in the spotlight, particularly Xhaka, who has completed a move to Arsenal from Borussia Mönchengladbach for around £30m and Breel Embolo, the 19-year-old forward who is expected to leave Basel this summer for the highest fee ever paid to a Swiss club.
It has been reported that Manchester United have had talks with his agent – who is Shaqiri’s brother, Erdin – while other clubs in England and Germany have been credited with an interest. Embolo can play anywhere in the attacking line and there has been a clamour for him to start against Romania, most likely in place of Mehmedi. Embolo came on for him in the 62nd minute against Albania.
Lichtsteiner has been feted and then there is Yann Sommer, the goalkeeper. He made some vital interventions against Albania, including a decisive, late, one-on-one block from a substitute, Shkelzen Gashi.
Shaqiri is determined to regain centre stage.
France v Albania, Stade Vélodrome, 8pm BST Wednesday 15 June
Switzerland (probable): Sommer; Lichsteiner, Schar, Djourou, Rodriguez; Behrami, Dzemaili, Xhaka; Shaqiri, Seferovic, Mehmedi.
Romania (probable): Tatarusanu; Sapunaru, Grigore, Chiriches, Rat; Hoban, Pintilii; Stanciu, Popa, Stancu; Andone.
Referee S Karasev (Rus)
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