A decade after making his Switzerland debut as a teenage substitute against England, Granit Xhaka let his pride run free.
‘They said we were arrogant but I guarantee you one thing, we really wrote history,’ beamed Xhaka, as he settled into a seat in the depths of Romania’s National Stadium.
With hair rinsed blond and the man of the match trophy beside him, the Swiss captain savoured the defining moment of an international career spanning 98 caps.
Granit Xhaka captained Switzerland to a famous victory over France on Monday evening
It was late, well past one o’clock in the morning and his team had just knocked world champions France out of Euro 2020 after a breathless night here in Bucharest with six goals shared and the tie settled by Yann Sommer’s shootout save from Kylian Mbappe.
‘I played my first game for Switzerland in 2011,’ said Xhaka, 28. ‘Ten years afterwards, I am here as captain and I can lead this team. It is an unbelievable story.
‘I had to suffer a lot in my career. I was criticised a lot but praised as well, in the national team and at my club. It is hard work.
‘A lot of people only see what happens on the pitch and not what happens behind it, and the work you need to put in. We are very proud of what Switzerland has given us and we are proud to play for Switzerland because something like this exists only once in your lifetime.’
Xhaka savoured the defining moment with his Man of the Match award after the game
Xhaka’s generation of Swiss footballers set themselves a very high bar when they won the Under 17 World Cup in 2009, beating hosts Nigeria, Colombia, Italy, Germany and a Brazil team featuring Neymar along the way.
Rich with a Balkan influence from the conflicts and refugee crises of the 1990s, they promised a bright future and they have qualified for eight of the last nine major finals, only missing Euro 2012 when they failed to qualify from England’s group.
Yet this is the first time Switzerland have reached the last eight of a major finals since 1954 when they hosted the World Cup.
‘It is difficult to find words to describe it,’ said Xhaka, one of the three Under 17 world champions in the team against France, alongside two-goal hero Haris Seferovic and Ricardo Rodriguez.
‘I can only say thank you to the team and credit our coach. He has taken so much care to improve us so much and finally we managed to pay him back.’
Xhaka’s generation of Swiss footballers set a high bar when they won U17 World Cup in 2009
They beat Nigeria, Colombia, Italy, Germany and a Brazil team featuring Neymar along the way
Vladimir Petkovic, the 57-year-old Bosnian hired in 2014, has taken his share of criticism. After a spluttering start to Euro 2020 with a draw against Wales and a heavy defeat in Italy, he penned an open letter to fans urging them to unite behind the team.
‘We do not always do what you expect from us,’ wrote Petkovic, ahead of a 3-1 victory against Turkey to secure progress as one of the third-placed teams.
‘We try to meet these demands but we do not always succeed.’
Ahead of the France tie, he joked that smearing his head with Vaseline would be the best way to ensure the criticism did not stick.
Xhaka (left) celebrates with Haris Seferovic (right) after their opener against France
Petkovic might have been reaching once more for the jar when Hugo Lloris saved a penalty from Rodriguez. The Swiss would have gone 2-0 up had he scored. Instead, within four minutes, Karim Benzema struck twice and they were 2-1 down.
‘A slap in the face,’ said Xhaka. ‘We played a perfect first half, and until the penalty, a very good second half.’
But they refused to give up. ‘In the 68th minute, I saw the clock,’ he recalled. ‘It was a corner kick against us and I said to Yann, “We have to wake up”. Everybody thought it was over but we had 25 minutes left.
The midfielder was a rock in the centre of the park on a iconic night in Budapest
‘Then it was 3-1 but we turned it around. We were the better team. We wanted to win it in extra time. In the end, we were lucky to have a great goalkeeper to save the penalty. Against a team like France, with the top players in their ranks, it is just unbelievable.’
A yellow card against France means Xhaka is suspended and will miss the quarter-final against Spain in St Petersburg on Friday.
‘This is painful, yes, but if nothing else we have a night we will never forget,’ said the Arsenal midfielder, expected to leave London after five turbulent years and join Jose Mourinho at Roma.
Few Arsenal fans will mourn his exit. Many consider him an emblem of the club’s declining standards in recent years. They have booed him and hit him with online abuse.
Ever volatile, Xhaka has blasted back, frustrated and unloved. It cost him the captaincy, yet he has been trusted by every single one of his coaches as a leader capable of sacrificing his game for the team — he has even been shunted to left back when needed — and bringing the best from others.
The sweet moment of redemption is set to elude him at Arsenal. He will leave as an enigma — or a complete waste of money, depending on your stance. But he has every right to be proud of his achievements as captain of Switzerland.
‘The team and staff deserve to celebrate,’ said Xhaka. ‘We’ll show a great performance against Spain and then I have a home match for me in London in the semi-final.’