PREVIEW | Switzerland clash with Serbia revives memories of political tensions

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Switzerland and Serbia will battle for Group G’s last spot in the knockout stage on Friday in a rematch of the 2018 World Cup clash that could reignite political tensions between the teams.

Switzerland, on three points, look well-placed to join Brazil in the last 16. A win over Serbia would guarantee the Swiss a spot in next stage, while a draw would also be enough unless Cameroon pull off an upset win against Brazil, which would mean goal difference would be a determining factor.

Switzerland and Serbia – who along with Cameroon need a win for a chance to advance – have only played each other once, in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup. That match remains etched in the memory of fans as one with heavy political undertones.

Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka, born in Basel to ethnic Albanian parents from Kosovo, celebrated his goal against Serbia by forming a double-headed eagle with his hands, an Albanian nationalist symbol that can be found on Albania’s flag.

Xherdan Shaqiri – born in Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 – added another Swiss goal and replicated Xhaka’s celebration in the 2-1 group stage win, infuriating the Serbia side and prompting world soccer governing body FIFA to fine both players for unsporting behaviour.

Shaqiri, who did not play in Switzerland’s 1-0 loss to Brazil on Monday due to a muscle strain but is expected to return against Serbia, said in reference to the 2018 match that the Swiss were in Qatar to play soccer.

Controversy over Kosovo has already permeated Serbia at this World Cup, with FIFA opening proceedings against the nation’s FA after a flag which showed Kosovo as part of their country was allegedly hung in the dressing room when they faced Brazil.

The Football Federation of Kosovo, which became a member of European soccer’s governing body UEFA and FIFA in 2016, decried the “aggressive action” undertaken by Serbia.

Switzerland coach Murat Yakin and defender Manuel Akanji played down suggestions their Group G decider against Serbia could reignite political tensions between the two nations and called for the focus to be redirected towards sporting matters.

“We’ve discussed this many times. We’re happy to focus on football tomorrow and respect each other,” Yakin told reporters on Thursday.

“Since April the Swiss FA, the president and the general secretary all came to an agreement that we’re only talking about sport here, and this also applies to the players. We respect the players, and they also are respectful.

“It’s all about football tomorrow and this is what is going to matter. We are ready and mature enough to just play football. We want to make our nation proud and happy, and we will ignore the rest.”