Soccer

Red Star Belgrade vs Liverpool: How Jurgen Klopp showed responsibility in leaving out Xherdan Shaqiri

It did not seem that Xherdan Shaqiri did not want to play. After being told by a journalist about what Jurgen Klopp had thought of his contribution in a 4-0 victory over Red Star Belgrade two weeks ago, he was grinning. “Genius,” Klopp had described him before the conversation had the potential to turn a little darker as it slunk towards the possibilities in Serbia.

Shaqiri was asked whether there were any concerns about going there, considering his celebrations at the World Cup when, having scored a last-minute winner against the country for Switzerland, he made a two-handed signal with his fingers to represent the black eagle of the Albanian flag. It was a reminder that Shaqiri had not forgotten his roots in Kosovo, the ethnically Albanian region which had fought for its independence for two years at the end of the 1990s when the enemy was a Yugoslav force led by Serbs.

“No, I don’t really care what people are saying,” Shaqiri replied calmly. “I just go there to play a football game. It is not about politics it is about football. I worry about nothing and go to play.”


Liverpool vs Red Star – Champions League player ratings





1/22 Alisson – 6

2/22 Trent Alexander-Arnold – 6

3/22 Joe Gomez – 7

4/22 Virgil van Dijk – 7

5/22 Andrew Robertson – 7

6/22 Fabinho – 8

7/22 Georginio Wijnaldum – 7

8/22 Xherdan Shaqiri – 8

9/22 Mohamed Salah – 7

10/22 Roberto Firmino – 7

11/22 Sadio Mane – 7

12/22 Milan Borjan – 6

13/22 Filip Stojkovic – 5

14/22 Milos Degenek – 6

15/22 Srdan Babic – 5

16/22 Marko Gobeljic – 5

17/22 Branko Jovicic – 5

18/22 Lorenzo Ebecilio – 6

19/22 El Fardou Ben Nabouhane – 5

20/22 Nenad Krsticic – 5

21/22 Lorenzo Ebecilio

22/22 Richmond Boakye – 5

1/22 Alisson – 6

2/22 Trent Alexander-Arnold – 6

3/22 Joe Gomez – 7

4/22 Virgil van Dijk – 7

5/22 Andrew Robertson – 7

6/22 Fabinho – 8

7/22 Georginio Wijnaldum – 7

8/22 Xherdan Shaqiri – 8

9/22 Mohamed Salah – 7

10/22 Roberto Firmino – 7

11/22 Sadio Mane – 7

12/22 Milan Borjan – 6

13/22 Filip Stojkovic – 5

14/22 Milos Degenek – 6

15/22 Srdan Babic – 5

16/22 Marko Gobeljic – 5

17/22 Branko Jovicic – 5

18/22 Lorenzo Ebecilio – 6

19/22 El Fardou Ben Nabouhane – 5

20/22 Nenad Krsticic – 5

21/22 Lorenzo Ebecilio

22/22 Richmond Boakye – 5

He was told that he would more than likely at the very least get taunted and his mind drifted back to that airless evening in Kaliningrad when the flags with messages like “Kosovo is Serbia” hung like old washing from apartment balconies in the city centre and boos rang out around the stadium each time he touched the ball or whenever his face appeared on the giant video screen.

In the burn of the atmosphere, Shaqiri was inspired and the performance that followed helped convince Liverpool that he was a talent worth pursuing – placing him against Red Star a fortnight ago. “I know I can handle this, no problem,” he concluded before cheerfully wandering off into a busy corridor, warmly embracing a couple of Liverpool teammates as Red Star’s players stared at him momentarily while they prepared to board the coach that would take them to the airport.

What Shaqiri wanted to happen did not correspond with Klopp’s appreciation of environments and how they can influence outcomes, though Klopp stressed that Shaqiri now understands Liverpool’s position on the matter. His absence from the party that travelled to Belgrade yesterday morning allows the rest of the Liverpool squad to “avoid any distractions” and subsequently be “focused 100-per-cent on football,” according to Klopp.

When judging the decision to leave the player at home, particularly from outside the bubble of Anfield, some of the concerns are understandable. For example, Klopp admitted that he had reacted mainly to the speculation around the sort of reception Shaqiri would get, that he had “no idea what would happen”, and so it does not seem opinions were shaped by specific intelligence.

There will be those who will acknowledge there is common sense in Klopp’s thinking but then wonder what sort of a precedent it sends to fan groups of other clubs. Will more of them threaten a player or a team’s safety in the hope they won’t turn up?

Besides, if it’s safer to leave Shaqiri behind, why not Dejan Lovren as well? The defender was filmed singing a song that has been embraced by Croatia’s far right in the aftermath of a 3-0 victory over Argentina at the World Cup. Bojna Cavoglave by Thompson describes the events during ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, though Lovren – nor any of his teammates – were captured releasing one of the more contentious lines where Serbians are described as “irregulars.”

In cold reflection, Klopp will not have been able to ignore clear sporting facts. Like, for example, the fact that his team have beaten Red Star comfortably this season in a game where the opponent racked up five yellow cards in the second half as Liverpool’s domination became reflected by the margin in the scoreline.

Liverpool are unlikely to have it so easily in Belgrade where Napoli were only able to draw but should they take control, the last thing Klopp needs is home players reacting to a juiced-up atmosphere because of Shaqiri’s involvement, potentially risking injuries – not only to Shaqiri but to some of his teammates as well. Liverpool’s chances of winning probably increases if the mood is not as febrile as it would be otherwise.

Klopp has issues to consider that other managers do not, or at least, issues that may get swept away elsewhere because of the distance between clubs and their fans. Last week, Klopp made a donation of €5,000 to a campaign raising funds for Sean Cox, the Irishman who still receiving intensive treatment after he was attacked by Roma ultras outside Anfield in April. 

The discussion perhaps becomes awkward here – and indeed, a bit speculative – but the safety of Liverpool supporters has to be amongst his thoughts. “We didn’t want a story beyond a football story,” Klopp confessed in Belgrade last night. In spite of fair questioning, surely this confirms him as a manager aware of his immediate social responsibilities.

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