Granit Xhaka’s father, Ragip, heard the knock at his front door. The year was 1986, the setting Kosovo – then an autonomous province in Yugoslavia – and he was about to live an ordeal most people could barely comprehend.
When Xhaka Sr opened up, he came face to face with police officers. They arrested him and he was taken to jail, where he would spend the next three and a half years. He shared a cell with four other men and he would be let out once each day – for 10 minutes.
Ragip Xhaka was 22 years old, a university student in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and his crime had been to participate in demonstrations against the communist central government in Belgrade. He wanted democracy and freedom. He paid a heavy price for his beliefs.
“It’s true that my father was imprisoned for three and a half years and it was because he stood up for what he believed in,” Xhaka, the Arsenal midfielder, told Blick in 2014. “It’s not a taboo subject in our household. We talk about it. After all, I want to know what happened.”
Xhaka has learned that his father was freed in 1990, abruptly and without any real explanation. It was thanks, in large part, to Amnesty International, which was committed to supporting political prisoners, and the organisation would help Ragip and his wife, Eli, move to Switzerland in the summer of that year. Their first son, Taulant, was born in Basel in 1991 and Granit would follow 18 months later.
Apart from those few sentences to Blick, Xhaka has not said much in public about what his father went through. But it is clear he feels the same fire inside, the same guiding sense of loyalty and single-mindedness. It will continue to drive him in Saturday’s FA Cup final against Chelsea. “I can’t stand people who are backward,” he said. “I am honest, straightforward. I don’t like to pretend. And I will not change either.”
Xhaka has poured the courage of his convictions into the challenge at Arsenal. It has not been smooth sailing since his £35m transfer from Borussia Mönchengladbach last summer and his mistakes have been picked over remorselessly. The red cards he received in the home Premier League fixtures against Swansea City in October and Burnley in January have stained like indelible ink.
Arsène Wenger even suggested in March that Xhaka had become a marked man in the eyes of referees – “a victim a little bit of his reputation,” as the Arsenal manager put it – and there have been 11 additional yellow cards to reinforce the impression.
Xhaka has been startled by the strictness of the Premier League’s referees. Weren’t they supposed to let more go in England – the home of physical football? Privately, he feels that it was more of a man’s game in the Bundesliga.
The Swansea sending off was a case in point. The chop on Modou Barrow was cynical but the winger was not in an overly dangerous position and Xhaka clearly thought he would take the yellow card and regroup. There was surprise when the referee, Jon Moss, reached for the red. “It was a dark yellow and the referee went for bright red,” Wenger said.
For Xhaka it has been a question of adapting and he is hardly the first overseas player to experience difficulties. For example, his Arsenal team-mate Laurent Koscielny received two red cards and 10 yellows in his first season at the Emirates Stadium, after his move from Lorient. His reputation did not seem to take the same beating.
Wenger’s comments after Xhaka’s dismissal against Burnley – for a lunge at Steven Defour – did not help. He talked about “a lack of control” in Xhaka’s tackling and added he “would encourage him not to tackle, and to stay on his feet”. Xhaka did not help himself when, after his return from suspension, he was booked in five consecutive matches. The narrative became entrenched. Xhaka was a bit of a liability and, when that happens, it is not only damaging but difficult to overwrite.
Xhaka has stayed strong. The 24-year-old has listened to Wenger, because he came to Arsenal to learn from him, and he has compartmentalised the criticism from elsewhere. “It doesn’t trouble me at all – nobody trips me up that easily,” Xhaka told Blick in March this year. “What annoys me are the people who call me dirty, stupid and brainless. Those kind of words you don’t use about someone you don’t know.
“Aggression is a part of my game and when someone takes that away, I am not the same any more. I have analysed my red cards very closely and I have also seen that a lot of my fouls happen in the opposition half, which is too far away from our goal. That must stop. But I am not going on to the pitch to pull out of a tackle.”
It is probably fair to say Arsenal fans do not know Xhaka as a person. Perhaps, if he had been able to give an in-depth interview in England, there would be a stronger connection, with greater scope for empathy. But those who do know him talk about a man willing to fight until the last for his family and his employer; for the things that he believes in. And he has always found the way to succeed.
“He is a fighter,” Rainer Bonhof, a World Cup-winning midfielder with West Germany in 1974 and vice-president of Mönchengladbach, told the Guardian. “When he came to Gladbach from Basel [in 2012], he couldn’t get the opportunities to play in his first season but he needed time to adapt to the rhythm of the Bundesliga. He did adapt and he became the leader of the team.
“He is always quickly done with any setbacks and is able to concentrate on the next match. It is part of what makes him a little bit different to anybody else. If you remember, Mesut Özil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski at Arsenal – they took a couple of months or a half-year to accept English football and the style of it. I think, for sure, you will see there is a lot more coming from Granit.”
Bonhof describes Xhaka as somebody who “plays on the edge” but he marvels at his composure on the ball and, particularly, the range, vision and laser-beam accuracy of his passing. If anybody is well qualified to discuss this, it is Bonhof, a great technician, and it feels as though one statistic posted by Xhaka this season has drifted under the radar. He has made 2,055 successful passes. Only one Premier League player – Chelsea’s César Azpilicueta – has completed more.
Xhaka is a ball-playing No8 rather than a destructive No6 and he was never going to be the answer to Arsenal’s long-time problem position in defensive midfield. Comparisons have been made with N’Golo Kanté, who also made a big move last summer; he went to Chelsea from Leicester City and helped them win the title. But they are different types of midfielder and Xhaka cannot be responsible for the balance of the Arsenal team. That is Wenger’s domain. What can be said is that Xhaka has enjoyed himself in the recently implemented 3-4-2-1 system and he takes some form into the Cup final.
When Xhaka’s story is told, the subject of his nationality is central. He declared for Switzerland and is proud to represent the country of his birth but he is equally proud of his Kosovo-Albanian heritage. What has complicated matters is the fact that his brother, Taulant, who plays for Basel, made the decision to declare for Albania. Xhaka felt compelled to write an open letter to the people of Kosovo to explain why he chose Switzerland.
“I have a good relationship with the Albanian fans,” Xhaka has said. “But when you are called a traitor – that is such a harsh word. Most of the Albanian fans respect me. But traitor is unacceptable considering the background of my family.”
Xhaka’s destiny has led him to Wembley and he might reflect on Wenger’s sales pitch to him, when the manager first tried to push the merits of a move to Arsenal. According to Xhaka, Wenger said: “If you want to go to paradise, come to us.” It has not quite worked out like that, given the trails and tribulations of a wild season, but Xhaka believes it could yet finish on a high.
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