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World Cup group phase complete; now, knockout stage begins

Switzerland beats Serbia in bad-tempered game to reach last 16 of World Cup

Tensions from the Balkans seep onto the field during group stage match as flare-ups erupt between players and fans taunt opposing team

Switzerland's Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the World Cup group G soccer match between Serbia and Switzerland, in Doha, Qatar, December 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Switzerland's Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the World Cup group G soccer match between Serbia and Switzerland, in Doha, Qatar, December 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri took off as soon as the ball hit the back of the net.

It was no surprise where he was headed after scoring the first goal in Switzerland’s 3-2 win over Serbia on Friday, a result that put his team into the round of 16 at the World Cup for the third tournament in a row. (Friday’s match, along with Cameroon’s victory over Brazil, completed the 32-team group phase of the World Cup, with 16 countries now proceeding to the knockout stage, which begins Saturday with Holland against the US, and later in the day, Argentina against Australia.)

Born in Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, Shaqiri ran straight to the opposing fans to celebrate — putting his finger to his lips after having been previously taunted by that section of the crowd.

The game was only 20 minutes old and the tension was palpable.

“You can hear by listening to my voice, it’s hoarse, that it was a game with a lot of emotions,” Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka said. “It is part of football. The game was fair enough. We wanted to focus on football. We did this and we took this first step and are now into the round of 16. We are proud.”

Most importantly for Switzerland, it went through to the knockout round after finishing second in Group G and will next face Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo on Tuesday at Lusail Stadium.

But the tensions surrounding this particular match-up always threatened to explode.

The countries met in the group stage at the last World Cup in 2018, resulting in a Swiss victory, but Shaqiri and Xhaka were fined for celebrating with hand gestures representing Albania’s national eagle symbol.

Xhaka and Shaqiri have Albanian heritage linked to Kosovo.

Serbia was also fined and warned by FIFA about the “display of discriminatory banners and messages” by supporters.

An announcement was made at Stadium 974 during Friday’s match that appeared to be in relation to chanting from the Serbian fans. FIFA wouldn’t say what the announcement was after the match.

“I didn’t hear it. Honestly, I didn’t hear,” Serbia coach Dragan Stojković said of the chants. “I was focusing on the game.”

There was enough happening on the field, including Remo Freuler’s winning goal just after halftime and several flare-ups between the players.

“First of all, I want to enjoy the moment,” Switzerland coach Murat Yakin said after being asked about the behavior of his players during the ill-tempered match. “It cost us a lot of energy and emotions. We went through a lot.”

A number of Serbia’s substitutes burst onto the field in the second half when Aleksandar Mitrovic had a penalty appeal denied. Xhaka was at the heart of a heated melee late in the game.

“Sometimes, you know, tensions come and maybe bad words create uncomfortable behavior,” Stojković said. “But it is nothing special. It is normal for this kind of game.”

Shaqiri scored the opening goal and then played a key role in the winner. He clipped a ball into the penalty box for Ruben Vargas, who back-heeled to Freuler for the goal.

Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during the World Cup group G soccer match between Serbia and Switzerland, in Doha, Qatar, December 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

Despite those goals, Shaqiri wasn’t happy to be substituted in the 69th minute. Before taking his seat on the bench, he whacked the side of the dugout with his elbow.

“No one likes to be substituted,” Yakin said. “Part of my responsibility is to protect the players. He scored a goal and had a great assist. He was very present and supported his teammates and made a difference.”

Goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic had put Serbia in the lead in the first half, but Breel Embolo evened the score just before halftime.

Switzerland, which needed a win to guarantee itself a place in the knockout round after beating Cameroon and losing to Brazil in its opening two games, reached the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and again four years later in Russia. They lost 1-0 in both matches, to Argentina and Sweden, respectively.

Against Portugal, the Swiss will be looking to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since hosting the competition in 1954.

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