It had all been going so well. In a match with rich potential for violence, Switzerland and Serbia played a four-goal first half on the wild side. The players were fired up, scrappy but not scrapping. They were behaving themselves.
Early in the second half Aleksandar Mitrovic went down after a clear dive. His penalty-pleading face switched to the telltale grimace of cramp. Swiss defender Fabian Schar, the nearest player to him, helped him out with his leg stretches. Given the geopolitical issues between these countries and the players of Kosovar-Albanian heritage in Switzerland’s team, this was an unexpected act of friendship.
Then, inevitably, the unpleasantness. During the break in play Granit Xhaka pointed at the Serbia bench, offered a few pointed words then appeared to grab his crotch. As a British sport journalist I make no claim to be fluent in the language of Balkan gesticulations and their likelihood to cause offence, but it seems safe to guess that might be inflammatory.
Perhaps it was revenge after Dusan Vlahovic celebrated his goal with a similar, albeit un-targeted grab of the shorts. His manager Dragan Stojkovic was alleged to have shouted something offensive on the touchline. Later, Xhaka wore the shirt of substitute Ardon Jashari, who shares a surname with Adem Jashari, founder of the Kosovo Liberation Army and a symbol of Kosovar independence. Xhaka said the gesture had no political meaning and was a pre-planned shout-out to his young squad-mate Ardon.
The gestures were just as pointed the last time these nations met at a World Cup in 2018. Xhaka, born to ethnic Albanian parents from Kosovo, celebrated his opening goal in Kaliningrad by making an eagle sign with his hands, referencing the black eagle of the Albanian flag. Xherdan Shaqiri, born in Kosovo, did the same after the winner. Serbia complained to Fifa.
Thankfully no similar celebrations this time, although there was an announcement about as-yet unknown “discriminatory shouts and gestures.” That fit the expected mood, as did Serbia’s team.
A match which defied the stereotypes
Before the match descended into darkness, this collection of large adult sons had provided plenty to enjoy. If they cannot win you over with their reckless attacking and apathetic attitude to defending perhaps they can interest you in their 6’9” goalkeeper wearing leggings, inside the only stadium at this World Cup without air conditioning?
Strahinja Palovic, supposed centre-back but frequently auxiliary centre forward, looked a danger to himself and others throughout, all limbs and visible panic when attacked with any sort of pace by Shaqiri or Breel Embolo
There was an argument when Serbia formed a wall for one Switzerland free kick, which culminated in a booking for Mitrovic. He and his frothing mates looked like nightmare customers arriving at a provincial nightclub looking for trouble. On the bench Stojkovic was slumped halfway down his seat, as if on his third night of sleep in a dreadful chair on a labour ward. It was not even half time.
But this was also a match which defied the stereotypes. As the pre kick-off countdown reached zero, the usual signal to get the game started, Switzerland were still in their huddle. Terrible timekeeping.
Switzerland eventually won the game by taking the crazy out of it. Despite Xhaka’s short-pulling it was not through any great cojones (if you take the usual inference of bravery) that Switzerland grasped control. They tightened up out wide, effectively muzzled Serbia’s dangerous dual strikers and benefitted from the removal of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. They tamed a feral game.
There was still time for an almighty row at the end, beginning with a push from Nikola Milenkovic on Xhaka, then prompting involvement from most of the players on the pitch, forming a rolling maul soundtracked by the referee's impotent whistles. The Serb subs came off the bench in “hold me back!” stances. Switzerland's massed in the corner of their technical area, teasing them from a distance.
It seemed destined to boil over after the final whistle but at the end it was just sad squats and tired gazes into the middle distance for Serbia.
Switzerland’s bench hared towards their heroes, a bouncing circle of joy ahead of a well-earned round of 16 match with Portugal. They will ask more difficult questions, but probably not such unpleasant ones.