Taulant and Granit Xhaka: Brothers face off in Switzerland vs. Albania
LENS -- It would have taken a brave onlooker to use Basel's 2-0 win at Grasshopper on March 10, 2012, to predict the future, but the signs were there. There was a pinpoint, curling free kick into the top corner from a 20-year-old Xherdan Shaqiri, who would shortly be on his way to Bayern Munich, but rather more significant was the midfield battle between the home side's No. 13 and the visitor's No. 34.
Taulant and Granit Xhaka were brothers and best friends; they had come through the ranks at Basel together, but Taulant, 18 months older than the fast-developing Granit, was on a year's loan with the Zurich-based club. For the sons of two Kosovan-Albanian immigrants who had emigrated to Switzerland in 1989, this was, if nothing else, a nice footnote in burgeoning careers.
The footnote has now become a banner headline. On Saturday, the Xhaka brothers will face each other for the first time since that afternoon four years ago, and the context could barely be more piquant. In the red and white corner, recent £30 million Arsenal signing Granit will represent Switzerland, to whom he committed in 2011; in the red and black corner, Taulant will line up for Euro 2016 underdogs Albania, having debuted in September 2014 in time for their remarkable run to the finals.
It is a match-up without precedent in a major international tournament; Kevin-Prince Boateng and Jerome Boateng lined up on opposite sides when Ghana and Germany met at the 2014 World Cup, but they are half-brothers. The Xhakas' situation feels more immediate, more rooted in modern European history and geopolitics.
Their parents, Ragip and Elmaze, were among the thousands who arrived in Switzerland from the ethnically Albanian Kosovo while it was still a part of the former Yugoslavia, primarily due a political situation that soon veered into a bloody war. Their sons were born after they had settled in Basel. Five other members of the Swiss squad -- Shaqiri and the Watford midfielder Valon Behrami among them -- join Granit in having Albanian heritage, and, remarkably, nine of the Albanian party were born or brought up in Switzerland. To some extent, Saturday's fixture in Lens will be contested between players who had someday hoped to be working alongside each other.
Not least Granit. He openly stated his wish to play for Albania before, frustrated by the the football federation's lack of proactivity in enlisting his services, making his decision to play for Switzerland instead. Taulant was less eagerly pursued by the Swiss setup, and that left the door open for him to represent Albania, finally making his first appearance in the 1-0 win in Portugal that set the tone for an eventful and sometimes stormy Group I campaign.
"Family is the most important thing to me," Granit said in an interview three and a half years ago. "Especially my brother Taulant -- we talk about everything together."
The brothers have always been close and grew up playing football together for Concordia Basel, where their parents sent them "to keep them off the streets" when they were aged 4 and 6, respectively. Their differing international allegiances have not separated them, either; Granit has lent visible support on social media to Albania and also to Kosovo, which has now become a member of FIFA and UEFA.
That has caused some disquiet around the Swiss setup, but for now the focus is on Stade Bollaert-Delelis. The two will be direct opponents in the engine room as Albania, who will look to stay compact and catch the Swiss on the break, hope to surprise a talented side whose pre-tournament performances -- including defeats to the Republic of Ireland, Bosnia and Belgium -- have given manager Vladimir Petkovic cause for concern.
There will be no thoughts spared about what might have been; two siblings who have forged their reputations through wholehearted, indefatigable approaches will only have victory in mind. "Immediately after the draw was made, we had a weird feeling about it, but we're much more relaxed now," Granit said earlier this week.
It is a safe bet that a few more people will paying close attention to Saturday's first 50-50 challenge between the two than any tackle they contested back in 2012.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.