This is the story of Granit Xhaka, the man booed off the pitch by his own fans, stripped of the captaincy and had his bags packed to leave. It is about how he is now the darling of Arsenal fans, a heart-warming redemption song.
But it is also about Ragip and Elmaze Xhaka, his parents. It is a story that involves suffering, imprisonment, a love that endures beyond prison cells and determination to start anew, despite the refusal of some of your compatriots to accept your identity.
When Xhaka’s story at Arsenal is placed within the context of his family’s wider experience, it is perhaps no surprise he is here, in October 2022, sat on a sofa enjoying a coffee at the club’s London Colney training ground, with Arsenal top of the league, him a key driver of their midfield and so beloved by fans that the new song in praise of him regularly resounds around the Emirates.
Granit Xhaka opened up to Sportsmail about his family history and redemption at Arsenal
Yet he is understandably a touch incredulous that we are at this point, almost three years to that day when he was substituted against Crystal Palace and Arsenal fans cheered the change, jeering him off the pitch. The public humiliation is excruciating, as Xhaka first waves his arms, goading fans, and then tells them to ‘F*** off!’
Xhaka is recalling it now as we talk prior to training. He remembers the journey to his north London home, where he lives with wife, Leonita, and his two daughters. ‘Normally in our family we’re loud, we like to communicate, we like to joke,’ he says. ‘This was the first time where I have maybe one hour from stadium to home and no words from nobody.’
The first to break the silence was Ragip. ‘My dad has never, ever been a guy to leave something that we didn’t finish,’ said Xhaka. ‘And this is the first time he said to me: “It’s time to leave”. That was a big surprise. And it was clear after that, that I have to leave.’
A lot has happened since October 2019, an era when no one had heard of Covid and Unai Emery was coach. In those days, a frustrated Xhaka would take the lack of progress Arsenal were showing and bring it back home with him to his wife and newly born daughter.
The Swiss midfielder has played a pivotal role during Arsenal’s fruitful start to the campaign
Xhaka, pictured with wife Leonita Lekaj, says he has learned to split family life from professional life over the past three years
He has two daughters with Lekaj, and in recent years Xhaka has made sure to not let frustrations from Arsenal duty follow him back to the family home
‘The most important [thing] I learned these last three years was you have to split your profession and family. Before now, everything that happened on the pitch, I took home. Not in an aggressive way but emotions. When I lost, I wasn’t ready to speak. But it is a different picture now. Granit at home and different Granit on the pitch.’
Did this epiphany come from a growing maturity brought on by the arrival of his daughters or a reflection on the breakdown of his relationship with fans? ‘Everything,’ he says. ‘A bit [of the] puzzle was what happened three years ago, as well as the kids, as well the people I have now around, They teach me as well and communicate with me. It’s not like you change one thing and everything is going well. You need [all the pieces of] the puzzle.’
To appreciate the impact of his father’s intervention, you should know this is not a man to be cowed by a crowd or give up a cause. Ragip spent three-and-a-half years in jail in former Yugoslavia for protesting for the rights of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in the late Eighties.
He has spoken about police arresting him at his parents’ home at 5am, beatings, being in a cell, two by four metres, with four other prisoners for all but 10 minutes a day. ‘What he went through is not normal,’ says Xhaka. ‘I started to ask him very early about it and he gives always little pieces. Never the big story. Of course, when I was older, he gave me more and more but I believe he still has a lot to say. You can feel it when you speak to him.’
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It is not just a story about his father’s resilience, however. ‘My parents met each other one week before he went to prison, so we are speaking a lot about my dad, but mum, from a women’s side, to wait there for someone needs a lot of respect. My dad, and my dad’s side, said to my mum: “Listen we didn’t know this would happen, we are more than ready if you say: ‘I can’t wait.’” They met at 18, 19, it’s not like they met at 30. My mum was waiting for my dad for three-and-a-half years and she was ready to leave her family because of him.’
It was 1990 when, partly due to an Amnesty campaign, Ragip was released and the couple decided to leave for Switzerland. ‘It is very hard to say to your own parents, to your own family: “I have to leave the country as I have no chance to live here in freedom.”
‘The first time I saw my uncle, grandmother, grandfather I was 12. They didn’t see their own family and brothers for 12 years. Today you have FaceTime, [mobile] phones and you can speak whenever you want but we would go in the phone cabin and put the money in [to talk]… we had spoken to them, but you can’t see them.’
His brother Taulant, who plays for Basel and Albania, was born in 1991, Granit in 1992. ‘We lived in a normal flat, we had a good childhood. We enjoyed a lot of time on the street football pitch, until the evening, until my parents come to take us! It was a cage-type pitch, where I still go today and visit with brother and parents are not living far from there.’
Xhaka became the target of frequent booing from Gunners fans during Unai Emery’s reign
Switzerland accepted many refugees fleeing the Yugoslav civil war and Xhaka said: ‘There were a lot of ex- Yugoslavia people where we lived, not a lot of Swiss. But we never had problems how we grew up, even not with ex-Yugsolavs [of different ethnicities].’ It is quite clear the pride Xhaka feels in his country of birth.
His parents found jobs and he feels it is a country that gave his family a second chance. He is now national captain heading into the World Cup. His parents’ story is a classic of migration being a boost to a nation. And yet, at times, you can still feel the cold chill of rejection.
Given his father’s background, Xhaka could hardly forget his Kosovan roots, where the majority are ethnically Albanian. Hence his spot of bother with FIFA for making an Eagle symbol, associated with Albanian nationalists, when scoring in the 2-1 win over Serbia.
His commitment to his birth country should not be in doubt, given that he has 106 caps, yet when he was discussed as a potential captain, former Liverpool player and Swiss Stephane Henchoz said he should not be in the mix because he did not ‘represent Switzerland and the team’.
Xhaka bridles at the suggestion. ‘I know why it is. First of all, because I never hide where I’m from, where my parents are from. Some people don’t accept or understand it. This guy, like others on TV, they have their opinion of me, it’s fine. I’m very proud to play for Switzerland, if not I wouldn’t get 100 caps. I’m not the captain if I’m not proud. What people speak on TV doesn’t matter. Most important for me is the people, the country, staff and team and I feel more than welcome in this country.’
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It is a riposte to put Henchoz in his place but a reminder that, for some, there is apparently always an extra hurdle be cleared to demonstrate your loyalty. Xhaka is currently studying for his UEFA B licence, which is why on Monday, after the 3-2 win over Liverpool, he was coaching a group of 14-year-olds in Arsenal’s academy.
He emphasises the positivity of the experience, the enthusiasm of the children yet it is hard not to compare lives. ‘Sometime I’m coaching, I see the youngsters and what they have, it makes me like: “You have everything!” and how I grew up. For example, the pitch, the training ground is perfect like ours. So enjoy. Take your time, enjoy your time on the pitch as it can be over from today to tomorrow.’
There is one topic the trainees always want to raise with Xhaka. Those jeers will never be wholly forgotten. ‘Even when I do my coaching, the young players ask about it because everyone saw it. It’s not just my story or the club’s story. All the youth saw the moment. But I’m grateful because I want to give them something as well, [and show them] everything is possible.’
Xhaka did not know if rebuilding his bond with fans was possible. As recently as April, Xhaka revealed there remained a fissure with the fans. ‘I can’t pretend my relationship with the fans will ever be the same, because that moment will always be in my heart,’ he said.
Xhaka has scored two and assisted three in nine Premier League appearances this campaign
He is reminded of that quote and his mind goes back to a month ago and his commanding performance in the 3-0 win at Brentford. As players saluted fans at the end, a new song was being chanted in the away end. To the tune of ‘Glad All Over’, the Arsenal fans were singing: ‘We’ve got — Granit Xhaka!’ The player looked a little taken aback and emotional. It felt like something had healed.
‘They started singing and I was so grateful,’ he says. ‘The first time they sing, it was Brentford, I got emotional a lot, because I didn’t expect that.’ Even now, it is clear how moved he is, his face beaming. ‘Maybe the people outside can’t see it, but for me it means a lot. I need to feel love from fans. And this is what I feel at the moment and why I’m performing like this. It’s much easier to give them something back and fight for them if you feel that.’
And the quote about it never being the same again? ‘This is true. I said that. I never, ever was thinking that I would feel this love from their side. What happened three years ago is part of my football career and is a nice [experience] because it helped me a lot. People see that as very negative, it was a period where I was struggling, it was not easy but I see it very positive. I forgot everything what happens, my heart is very clean I want to give them something back, what they deserve.’
At this point in an interview, when you turn to the actual football, you prepare for anodyne answers about one game at a time. But that would be out of character for Xhaka. He says what he feels. He is not foolish enough to have false confidence about Arsenal being top of the table after nine games. But nor is he about to go with the consensus that Manchester City are unstoppable.
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‘It can be a special year,’ he says. ‘If we keep going like we are working at the moment, we can get something big.’
What represents something big? The title? ‘Of course,’ he replies, not missing a beat. ‘We have to believe in ourselves. If not, why are we playing?’
Last season was another low point. Xhaka himself was sent off at the Etihad after 35 minutes with Arsenal already 2-0 down. They would lose 5-0, which put them bottom after three games. They then lost 2-1 (against City) in London in January. ‘We had them very close at home, we deserved the three points,’ he said. ‘But this is City and the quality they have. They don’t need a lot and when they have a chance, they finish the action.’
On a potential title race, Xhaka added: ‘What I hear from people outside, they are saying we are not ready to beat the top six. But we did it twice now [against Tottenham and Liverpool].
‘We lost at Manchester United, where we were the better team. We need to give credit and respect to Man City, what they did the last couple of years. You need the perfect day to beat them. But I think we are ready to have this fight against them.’
It is a tantalising thought. What you can be sure of is that Xhaka is ready to fight. And that he will not know when he is beaten.