- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

LENS, France (AP) - Brothers Taulant and Granit Xhaka will play their first games in the European Championship on Saturday - on opposite sides of the field.

Taulant will represent Albania, which is making its first-ever appearance in a major football tournament, while his younger brother Granit will represent Switzerland.

It’s the first time in European Championship history that two brothers will face each other. In the World Cup, it’s happened before, most recently in 2014 when Kevin-Prince Boateng represented Ghana against his brother Jerome, who played for Germany.

There are other links besides the two Xhaka brothers in Saturday’s match in the northern town of Lens. Both squads have players who were eligible to represent either country, following the migration of Albanian families with roots in Kosovo to Switzerland since the 1980s.

In Albania’s 23-man squad, a total of 11 have origins in Kosovo, while Switzerland has four. But of those 11 playing now in the Albanian jersey, six were born in Switzerland.

The Xhaka brothers were born in Basel, Switzerland, to a Kosovar-Albanian family. They both played for Swiss national youth teams before Taulant decided to represent Albania at senior level.

Granit opted to stay and his stock has risen. He was recently signed by Arsenal after captaining German side Borussia Monchengladbach to fourth place in the Bundesliga this season.

“(We) both did not want to be at the same group,” Granit said in a recent television interview. “For both it will be a special match. I am proud of Switzerland, but of course I cannot forget my roots.”

His brother promised “a strong duel” and spoke of his desire to “beat him” in Saturday’s match.

Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, was granted FIFA membership recently. It will be allowed to be part of the World Cup qualifiers, which start in September, although current FIFA advice to UEFA indicates that Kosovo-eligible players with other national teams will be barred from switching allegiance.

Other national teams, including those from Belgium, Finland, Germany and Norway, could also be affected by Kosovo’s new status.

Albania has not beaten Switzerland in six previous encounters but its coach Giovanni de Biasi has instilled classic Italian virtues into his side. A strong defense is built around veteran midfielder Lorik Cana, a Kosovar who is Albania’s best-known player after stints across Europe. He currently plays for French side Nantes.

“We want to do more, grow better,” Cana said. “Actually, we do have great opponents in our group, we try with our qualities to go further!”

The match pitches Albania’s defense, which conceded just five goals in its eight qualifying games, against one of the qualifying round’s most attacking sides. Switzerland scored 24 goals during the campaign.

Switzerland, which did not make it out of the group stage in its previous three European Championship appearances, will rely upfront on midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri - another Kosovar player - as it tries to make the round of 16. Switzerland will hope the 23-year-old lives up to his nickname - “the Alpine Messi.”

Albania plays host France next while Switzerland faces Romania.

___

Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed.

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