PREVIEW - Divided loyalties as Switzerland face Albania
LENS, France (Reuters) - Switzerland may get a taste of their own medicine on Saturday when they meet an Albania side featuring several players who benefited from the highly-acclaimed Swiss youth set-up.
Loyalties will be divided in a fascinating Group A clash which, for the first time in the European Championship, will have brothers on opposing sides in Granit and Taulant Xhaka.
Both are of Albanian heritage and were born in Basel but Granit will line up for Switzerland and older brother Taulant, provided he recovers from a thigh injury, for their opponents.
In all, nine members of Albania's 23-man squad had the right to play for Switzerland, and six members of the Swiss squad could have opted for Albania.
Switzerland accepted tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanians who fled the Balkan wars in the 1990s following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
The Swiss football federation (SFV) actively tapped into the potential offered by the second-generation immigrants, recruiting them to its widely-acclaimed youth development programmes.
The policy paid dividends as the Swiss uncovered talents such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Ricardo Rodriguez and Breel Embolo, all from immigrant backgrounds.
The flip side was that they unwittingly coached players for other countries' national teams.
Past cases included Frank Feltscher, who chose to play for Venezuela, and Mladen Petric, who opted for Croatia, while seven players in Albania's squad in France -- Arlind Ajeti, Frederic Veseli, Naser Aliji, Migjen Basha, Armir Abrashi, Shkelzen Gashi and Taulant Xhaka -- have played for Switzerland's youth teams.
Former Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld called for a change in the rules to prevent changes of allegiance, pointing out that the SFV had invested some 30,000 Swiss francs ($31,120.33) in coaching each player.
For the players themselves, it is often a difficult choice.
When Switzerland played Albania in a World Cup qualifier at Euro 2012, Granit Xhaka faced hostility and criticism from both sides.
Albania fans jeered him while a Swiss television commentator implied that he had deliberately missed an easy chance when his side were already 2-0 ahead.
"Presumably Xhaka was not unhappy at not having scored against Albania," said Sacha Ruefer, who was heavily criticised for the remark and later said he regretted it.
None of this bothers the Xhakas' parents who in the space of three days last year watched Switzerland qualify for the European Championship with a victory over San Marino and then Albania win away to Armenia to book their place.
"We would have been very unhappy if both teams hadn't made it," said their father Ragip Xhaka. "One son for Switzerland and one for Albania -- it's the perfect reflection of our family."
($1 = 0.9640 Swiss francs)
(Writing by Brian Homeowod; Editing by Clare Fallon)