KALININGRAD, Russia (AP) — The coaches of Serbia and Switzerland only want to talk about football, not about an entrenched political dispute casting a shadow over their teams’ World Cup showdown in Russia.
Tensions have been building in Serbia before the Group E match Friday in Kaliningrad. Not between Swiss and Serbian fans, but between Albanian and Serbian supporters.
That is because several players in the Swiss squad have Kosovo Albanian roots, including midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri who was born in Kosovo, the former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence and relations between the two countries remain tense.
Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic didn’t want to discuss the issue Thursday.
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When a reporter asked Petkovic him how he would discuss it with his players, he sidestepped the question.
“We will tell them we had a great match against Brazil. That’s not enough; we have to play better against Serbia,” Petkovic said through an interpreter. Switzerland held Brazil to a 1-1 draw in their opening match, while Serbia beat Costa Rica 1-0 to top the group after one round.
Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic was equally reluctant to be drawn into the debate.
“I’m not into politics,” he said, also speaking through an interpreter. “We have our goals. We’re here for sports to represent our country in the best possible way and we’re not at all interested in anything else.”
Shaqiri makes no secret at his pride for his heritage at the World Cup. At training Thursday, he wore football boots with Kosovo’s flag on his right heel and the Swiss flag on his left.
Midfielder Valon Behrami grew up in what is now Kosovo, moving to Switzerland with his family in 1990 amid rising tensions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. He has the flags of Switzerland and Kosovo tattooed on his left arm.
Such displays have angered some Serbian fans, who often wear T-shirts bearing the map of Kosovo with the Serbian flag on it.
The reaction of some Serbian players has also been sharp.
“If they are such great patriots, why don’t they play for their own countries instead of Switzerland?” Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic asked recently.
Friday’s match also features two coaches who both come from Bosnia, a country that emerged from the former Yugoslavia after a bitter war in the 1990s. Bosnia finished third in its qualifying group and didn’t make it to Russia.
“I think that Mr. Petkovic is from Sarajevo. I hail from Zenica,” Krstajic said. “So we have two coaches from Bosnia-Herzegovina representing different teams at the World Cup.”
Zenica is a town about 70 kilometers (45 miles) northwest of Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital.
Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia contributed to this report.