Switzerland downplay political talk ahead of Serbia tie

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.

Captain Granit Xhaka and midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri were key figures — both with their goals and provocative celebrations — when the Swiss beat Serbia 2-1 in the group stage in 2018 in a contest with heavy political undertones.

Switzerland and Serbia meet on Friday in the battle for second place behind group winners Brazil and a spot in the last 16, where they would face the winners of Group H. Cameroon, who face Brazil, also have a chance of finishing runners-up.

“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.”

Xhaka, born to ethnic Albanian parents from Kosovo, and Kosovo-born Shaqiri celebrated their goals in 2018 by forming the Albanian nationalist symbol of a double-headed eagle with their hands.

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.

“I don’t think that match will influence us tomorrow,” said Akanji, who played in the 2018 clash in Russia.

“We’re only here to play football. We only want the three points and we will concentrate and focus only on that.”

Switzerland have a proven track record of making the knockout stages in recent major tournaments, having reached at least the round of 16 in the last two World Cups and European Championships.

They have three points in Group G, two more than bottom side Serbia, and need a win to guarantee a spot in the next stage. A draw would be enough unless Cameroon pull off an upset against Brazil, which would make goal difference the decider.

“We will meet the challenge tomorrow,” Yakin said.

“We are in a very good position due to the last two matches.

“We are optimistic and we will try to do everything we can to qualify. It’s still up to us, and that’s a good thing.”

Shaqiri was on the bench for Monday’s 1-0 defeat by Brazil and Noah Okafor missed out, both due to muscular problems, but Yakin said they had been training for the last two days and will be available for Friday’s match.

Goalkeeper Yann Sommer and centre back Nico Elvedi have been struggling with a severe cold but will also be ready to face Serbia, Yakin added.

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