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From F**k off to fidelity and forgiveness: Take a bow Granit Xhaka

Updated: Apr 19

By Mac Johnson (Deputy Editor)

The six of you wonderful folks who follow me on Twitter (@macjohnson22152 if you're feeling so inclined... or desperate) most likely missed me waxing lyrical about this interview. I love 'The Players' Tribune' generally; I think it provides an interesting and stark look into their lives that we might not otherwise get. I'll list a few favourites I found skimming through my Facebook "Saved" File.

And yes, I'm positively geriatric. I get it.

The Secret by Dani Alves. We Are All Brothers by Kalidou Koulibaly. They Say Nothing Good Comes from Dandora by Johanna Omola. We Do Not Dream by Claudio Ranieri. This Is For Liverpool by Andrew Robertson. Let Me Talk by Kevin De Bruyne. They're varied and different, but each provides a seriously entertaining and enlightening insight into the quite human lives of the players we often consider somehow superhuman, as more than merely people.

How else, then, can people justify the superhuman standards we hold them to, and abuse them on the back of? The racism and discrimination we subject them to, when all they've done is falter slightly in their pursuit to kick a football better than anybody else? Those are the questions The Player's Tribune asks when it publishes the accounts of athletes around the globe. And while I'm not planning on answering them myself, I wanted to reflect on Granit Xhaka's account.

I'll stop here and give a disclaimer. If you haven't read the piece, it's linked here. I'd heavily recommend doing so, both in the context of this article and generally. It's worth it.

To set the scene, it's December 2019. Xhaka has a contract on the table from Hertha Berlin, with personal terms agreed, and permission from the club to leave. His suitcase, along with those of his wife and children, were packed at the door, and all that was left to do, per Xhaka, was to say his goodbyes at London Colney.

His departure was spurred on by his nastiest moment at Arsenal, his infamous request for the support at the Emirates to "f**k off" as they booed him off the pitch following a rather undeserved Crystal Palace comeback. To hear him tell the story:

...That day against Crystal Palace, things went over the line. We had been 2–0 up, they made it 2–2, and then I was taken off after about an hour. I had barely begun to move when I heard the boos. And it was not just a few guys in the corner — it was a lot of people. I was shocked. I had never experienced anything like this. When I got close to the tunnel, I looked up at the fans sitting there — and this is the part that I will always remember. When I close my eyes now, I can still see their faces. I can see their anger. It’s not that they don’t like me. No, it’s different. This is hate. Pure hate. I am really not exaggerating this. Listen, I have never had a problem with criticism. Was Xhaka s*** today? O.K. No problem. But to be booed by your own fans? As captain? That is different. That is about respect. This word has always been huge for me, ever since I was a kid. It’s something I got from my mother. Respect for your parents. Respect for your club, your teammates, your fans. That day, I felt very disrespected. The comments were over the line. It felt personal.

It didn't get better from there. Death threats followed, directed at him and his family. Following the incident, everybody said he should leave. His wife, children, friends, and most importantly his father, all said he should leave. Xhaka and his family faced disrespect, unkindness, and downright cruelty, and an easier life awaited them in Berlin.

Xhaka and his family had an out, and an escape; he had a way to remove himself and his family from discomfort amounting to genuine danger. And yet, he didn't take it. Why? There are two reasons to his continued fidelity towards the Arsenal.

The first, and the lesser of the two, is Arteta. Through his conversations with Xhaka on the day of his departure, he made the bleak climate at the Emirates seem much more forgiving, like a place he could once again begin to call home.

The second, and far more commendable of the two, has to do with Xhaka's own resolve and forgiveness. In choosing to stay, he forgave us, as fans, our treatment of him both on and off the pitch, even as those same fans who reviled him on that October day at the Emirates still sit above the tunnel he walked down—and I'm not claiming they shouldn't, mind you. But consider it from his perspective.

He had every reason to leave, and nobody, not even the manager, would bat an eye. The force of will and character necessary to stay hints at an ironclad resolve. But don't take my word for it. Here's his account of the decision.

Normally I spend a lot of time making these decisions. I talk to everyone around me, I weigh up the pros and cons. But that day I broke my own rules. I told Mikel, “O.K.”
I called my wife and my parents. “We’re staying.” They were like, “No way.” I said, “Yes. Unpack the bags. This is a new challenge. Either you are with me, or I’ll go it alone, because I will go through with this.”
Of course, they were with me. But it was so hard, man. All this s*** had happened. All these people were saying, “Why don’t you leave already!” My dad was telling me, “It’s over.” So why go back? Because I felt I was big enough to make this decision on my own. Was I going to let these people have it their way? These people who think I am worthless? Who hate me? No. That’s not who I am. My head had left Arsenal, but my heart had not. My heart was telling me, You can’t leave this football club like this.

At the end of the day, Granit Xhaka is only human. He may be a high-profile footballer, he may be an international captain, and he may be a chiseled adonis, but he's also a person, who had some seriously difficult decisions to make.

That said, nobody knows what his future will be. His contract is up in 2024, and with Arsenal looking to upgrade on the Swiss in the hunt for a true No. 8, his time at the Emirates might be over earlier than that. But at the end of the day, the Swiss international has been a true servant of the badge. He's not the most talented player in the world, but he might have the most heart.

For your honesty, your dedication to the club, your willingness to appear before fans with no holds barred and no word omitted, you should be praised. Take a bow Granit Xhaka, and thank you for sharing yourself with us.

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