This article first appeared in Issue 579 of the excellent, evergreen Oatcake fanzine, for whom I write a column every home game.
‘He’s a pie in the sky, never happening in a million years signing.’
Those sage words were those of your correspondent, typed for the world to see, on the Oatcake messageboard about Xherdan Shaqiri. I didn’t go quite as far as the poor bloke who ended up having to get the player’s name tattooed on his backside after losing a bet about him signing, but to me it was inconceivable that a player of Shaqiri’s gifts and magnitude would join Stoke City. This is a player who just three years ago was the subject of a bidding war between most of Europe’s top clubs (and Liverpool). One who was tipped as a future Ballon D’Or winner. He’d won a treble in Germany, scored a world cup hat trick, graced the Champion’s League. Surely one of the big boys would snap him up? We were chasing rainbows, wasting our time. Let’s just give up on this charade and crack on with signing Aaron Lennon.
I’ve never been more delighted to look such a fool.
The mania that his signing has wrought on the city is unlike anything I can remember in almost a quarter of a century as a Stoke City fan. The club shop running out of the letter ‘Q’, so great was the clamour for shirts bearing his name, the telephone lines besieged by fans enquiring about tickets and season cards, it’s insane.
One Hanley bar has even unveiled ‘the Shaqiri burger’, a response to the dual announcements of Xherdan’s arrival and the return of oatcakes to the Brit. The burger consists of a huge beef patty stuffed with Swiss cheese in honour of the star’s adopted homeland, and is topped off with two oatcakes criss-crossing the bun in the style of his distinct ‘metrosexual Tintin’ quiff.
To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, Xherdan Shaqiri is kind of a big deal. You can tell how highly regarded a sportsman is by the number of nicknames they have. You could almost populate an XI aside team with Shaqiri’s. They tend to relate either to his technical wizardry – ‘the Alpine Messi’, ‘the Maradona of the mountains’, ‘the magic dwarf’, ‘the shark’; or his short but bulky frame – ‘the ninja turtle’, ‘the dice’, ‘the power cube’, ‘the box in the box’ (ok, I might have made that last one up).
Shaqiri’s signing was seen as a coup for both Bayern Munich and Inter, where over 1,000 fans turned up at the airport to greet his arrival, so we’re in a different stratosphere altogether to have him in ST4. He is a marvel, a veritable Swiss army knife of boundless creativity, capable of playing on either wing, in the hole or as a second striker. At 5ft6, his low centre of gravity and speed of thought and deed make him nightmarishly hard for defenders to keep track of, and he has a bag of tricks to create space in the tightest of spots. He has a range of passing to die for, a cannon of a left foot and a knack for trying – and achieving – the outrageous. Essentially, take Bojan, weld on the best qualities of Arnie and Charlie Adam, and you’ll get an idea of what the boy is about.
Shaqiri is a player who thrives on unpredictability, and his ability to adapt and react so quickly is a quality imbued in him since birth. He experienced upheaval from a very early age and has been immersed in a number of different cultures. He plays with the flags of three nations stitched into his boots – Switzerland, Kosovo and Albania. He was born in Kosovo to Kosovar-Albanian parents in 1991, and the family was forced to flee to Switzerland when the Yugoslav civil war broke out, eventually becoming naturalised Swiss. When he played for the Swiss national team against Albania in 2012, he did not celebrate when he scored, and left the pitch draped in an Albanian flag.
He is also one of several players to express support for Kosovo to be welcomed into FIFA, and this has proven one of a number of controversies to engulf his fledgling career. The secret, late-night meeting with Kosovan officials held by Shaqiri and two other Swiss internationals, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami, to sign a public declaration of support for a Kosovan national team caused consternation in both Switzerland, who fear losing their best players should that ever come to pass, and Serbia, who refuse outright to recognise Kosovan sovereignty. More recently, Shaqiri (a practising Muslim) faced yet more criticism when he was photographed with Shefqet Krasniqi, a known Jihadist and suspected terrorist. The player has insisted he did not know who Krasniqi was, and wants to be left alone to let his football do the talking.
Objectively speaking, the 23-year-old’s career has not yet reached the peaks many were expecting. He was no doubt dreaming of being linked with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, rather than ending up with the mighty Potters. So what happened?
Basically, he’s been a victim of circumstance and mismanagement – twice.
Shaqiri rose to prominence as the crown jewel of a fantastic FC Basel team, and his form on the right wing earned him a call-up to the Swiss world cup squad in 2010, aged just 18. English viewers were introduced to him as he scored a rocket against England in a Euro 2012 qualifier a few months later, before orchestrating Manchester United’s hilarious exit from the Champions League group stages in 2011. It was clear he was destined for big things, and the Manchester clubs, Liverpool, AC Milan and Atletico Madrid all sought his signature. It was Bayern who won the race though, and in his first season he made a significant contribution as the Bavarians swept all before them. Though confined to a squad role, he often came off the bench to great effect, and forced his way into the reckoning as coach Jupp Heynckes rotated him with such luminaries as Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. His maiden Bundesliga campaign delivered four goals and five assists from 13 starts, and though he was initially content with this limited role, he nevertheless voiced aspirations to play more, stating: “I want to be starting the important matches too”.
Instead, the reverse happened. Just as Pep Guardiola’s arrival in the Barca hotseat marked the beginning of the end for Bojan in Catalonia, ‘the philosopher’’s appointment at Bayern saw Shaqiri slip further down the pecking order. In 2013-14 he started just six league games. It didn’t help that he missed a chunk of the season through injury, when one of those volcanic thighs erupted…
…but Guardiola never really seemed to trust him, while his own acquisitions like Mario Gotze and Thiago Alcantara were just more piranhas in an already fearsomely competitive creative tank.
With the player agitating for more minutes, and just 18 months left on his contract, Bayern reluctantly put him up for sale last January.
It was then that Stoke’s interest surfaced, and was widely ridiculed, but both ourselves and Liverpool offered higher transfer fees than eventual destination Inter. Shaqiri was pointed in the direction of the Milan club by Bayern CEO (and former Inter star) Karl-Heinz Rumminigge, who felt Italy would be a better environment. “We’ve given Inter a discount”, he explained.
At first it appeared a masterstroke. Inter had a proud Swiss tradition dating all the way back to the club’s founders, and Shaqiri made an explosive start to life in Serie A. He scored on his debut, and in his first two months was creating on average a chance every 26 minutes and scoring every 292 minutes. Yet it then started to go horribly wrong.
There are a few reasons why Shaqiri’s eight months at Inter were so unhappy. Having not played much at Munich and arrived in the midst of Germany’s winter break, he found his fitness called into question, and a hamstring injury only underlined these concerns. When he struggled for form on his return, Mancini appeared to give up on him.
The ex-Man City manager was a source of frustration for Shaqiri – he’d gone out of his way to sign him, and bounced him into several different positions, preventing him from building any momentum. Eventually he was dropped and all but shoved out the door, despite declaring his intentions to fight for his place. Mancini talked of needing to make “sacrifices” while club owner Erick Thohir was even blunter: “Shaqiri? He didn’t fit with Mancini and his system. His sale, like Kovacic’s was to balance the budget…”
Inter’s decision was panned by many of the club’s own fans, who felt the player hadn’t received a fair crack of the whip. That sentiment was echoed by ex-Inter star Lothar Matthaus, who argued: “Mancini did not give any support to Shaqiri. He gave him no confidence. “If you sign a player, you have to let him play. If the coach does not help you adapt to the team, then you will fail.”
It’s ironic that Mancini, a maverick on and off the pitch as a player, should have such an aversion to flair players as a manager, shackling them with his conservative approach. Nevertheless, it’s curious that when Shaqiri was again put up for sale, interest from the big clubs was scarce.
Seemingly the only club prepared to go all in on Shaqiri was Stoke. Liverpool were nowhere to be seen. Everton and Schalke only wanted a loan. Why the reticence to spend on such a high profile name? What’s the catch?
It’s been suggested that he is something of a luxury player, with no interest in tracking back. It has also been argued that when he was given chances by Guardiola and Mancini he simply didn’t take them, flattering to deceive.
I think that’s harsh – he wasn’t given enough time to sink or swim at either club. Steffen Effenberg might have slammed Shaqiri’s decision to come here as financially motivated, but it’s an accusation that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
He could’ve made a fortune staying at Bayern. He wanted to stay at Inter. He’s here because he wants to play, and, as Mark Hughes (who has done a magnificent job selling the club to the player) has said, that’s something we can offer him. At Stoke he has the chance to be the main man, something he’s not had at club level since his Basel days. That responsibility is something he thrives on for the Swiss national team, for whom he is sensational in a free role, as that world cup hat trick against Honduras demonstrated.
Moreover, the Premier League should offer the perfect platform to showcase his talents, and that seems to have played a big part in him overcoming his initial reluctance to sign. Where Italy is slow and tactics take precedence, English football is faster and more open, and that should suit Shaqiri’s penchant for footballing anarchy to a tee. Yes, there’s a concern that we might be exposed down our right given neither he nor Glen Johnson are exactly renowned for their defensive work, but it looks like we’re adhering to the Vindaloo philosophy of “we’re gonna score one more than you”.
If everything goes to plan for Xherdan Shaqiri, he won’t be here for very long, but I think most of us have accepted it’s the lot of most Premier League clubs to act as a glorified shop window. Just sit back and enjoy the ride – watching him is the closest thing to watching a football version of Sonic the Hedgehog, pinging about, rapidly changing direction in a heartbeat, leaving defenders choking on his dust and their own failure. If he’s here for a good time, not a long time, and begins to enjoy his football again wearing the red and white, we’ll take some stopping.
Get excited. You’re going to love this kid.