The Curious Case of Xherdan Shaqiri – A Career in Reverse

If you read Xherdan Shaqiri’s career, it’s upside down. It’s easy to imagine stepping from a mid-table team to a Champions League team, but he’s doing it backwards like Benjamin Button.
The Curious Case of Xherdan Shaqiri - A Career in Reverse
Art by Debanjan.

On top of gathering the world’s best footballers for the greatest sporting event known to humanity every four years, each World Cup is a milestone.

These monumental tournaments stick out in our minds, we remember the years. Brazil 2014, South Africa 2010, Germany 2006, etc. They serve as a bus escorting our minds down memory lane–with stops every four years.

The World Cup reminds us of our personal lives at the time. How old (or, more often, young) we were, where we were in life, who we chose to invest our valuable time in, what our chief interests were.

Why, oh why, did I think baggy shorts were cool? Why, oh why, did I waste my time with that girl?

It reminds us of our favorite clubs and players. For instance, in 2014, Liverpool were full of optimism–the club wouldn’t have fired Brendan Rodgers for any other human being in the world. Manchester United had just fired David Moyes and hired Louis van Gaal, Manchester City were champions and Everton finished 6th.

It reminds us of how the world viewed players at different stages. James Rodriguez was generally unknown before his Golden-Boot-winning effort for Columbia in 2014. Muhamed Besic, Divock Origi and Mario Gotze were considered some of the top young players at the tournament. Their careers haven’t gone to plan since.

One specific player it reminds me of is Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who was 22 years old ahead of the 2014 World Cup and already the best player in his country. He was at Bayern Munich with a host of big clubs still chasing his signature.

But it didn’t quite work out for the attacking dynamo. Shaqiri landed at Stoke City, after failed stints with Bayern and Inter, and was relegated with the Potters this season.

Now, just like at the 2014 World Cup, he’s back in the shop window. But not for being the golden boy he once was, only to escape the harsh realities of the Championship.

Few could have predicted this outcome at this time four years ago. This is the curious case of Xherdan Shaqiri.

2014 Rewind

In June 2014, Shaqiri was the best player on the Switzerland national team heading into the World Cup.

Despite his age, he had already become one of the most decorated players in Swiss history. He won everything with FC Basel, three consecutive league titles and two Swiss Cup triumphs, which earned him a move to Bayern Munich in 2012. Predictably, he won everything with Bayern as well.

The first five seasons of his professional career, he won the league five times and a major domestic cup four times.

But at Bayern he was struggling for consistent playing time. There were rumblings about his future, and the likes of Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Inter were interested in giving him the playing time he desired.

What better display case for the shop window than the World Cup?

In the first two games of the group stage, Shaqiri was impressive but held off the scoresheet. With Switzerland needing a win against Honduras to advance to the knockout stages in their last group game, he exploded for a hat-trick.

Switzerland advanced to the round of 16 where they lost to Argentina 1-0 after extra time.

His World Cup ended with three goals in four matches, but all three came in one game, against Honduras rather than Argentina or France.

The tournament was a microcosm that would forecast Shaqiri’s career: decent for a couple games, incredible for 90 minutes, then back to decent thereafter.

With Switzerland home from Brazil, Shaqiri remained with Bayern against his wishes. He hoped to leave for playing time but the decision-makers in Bavaria told him his fortunes would change. They didn’t.

Sprite player, big personality

Shaqiri’s playing style matches his personality: captivating, direct and, at times, brazen.

Despite his diminutive size, Shaqiri possesses great torque. He’s stocky, in a good way, one that gives him the strength to compete against physical defenders in Germany and England, though that thickness also gives him a loose resemblance to a thumb.

On the pitch, Shaqiri has pace, dribbling acumen and finishing ability. But he’s proved to be an inconsistent winger in his career at the highest level, beginning with Bayern.

However, his failure at Bayern isn’t explicitly his fault. How many wingers would have gotten games at that club in 2014 with Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben in the squad?

The player lasted another half-season in Munich, making just nine more Bundesliga appearances, before moving to Inter in the January of 2015.

At Bayern, he made 81 appearances across all competitions, scoring 17 goals. His time at Inter was even less fruitful, making 20 appearances in all competitions and netting three times.

Is it his fault for choosing that situation? We’ve seen it over the years – talented young players either delusional about their own ability or agents giving poor advice. Shaqiri never seems short on confidence, so it’s possible he just assumed he’d beat out Robben or Ribery.

Either way, the wayward stint at Bayern knocked his career off the fast track it was on. Now, it’s no longer the express train, but the local. Making all the stops with Stoke City.

It could have been different. When he left Bayern for Inter, it served as another chance at a big club, albeit not a behemoth. The kind of club he should have gone to instead of Bayern in the first place.

But it didn’t work out at Inter either. At least both club and player needed only a few months together to understand the relationship was a doomed one.

It could have been different. Two years later, he came clean about what happened in 2014. He was supposed to go to Liverpool, which may have put his career back on track.

“That was my wish. I had offers from Liverpool and Atletico Madrid,” Shaqiri told spox.com. “I opted for Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers contacted me a few times during the World Cup. But Bayern blocked my move.”

Shaqiri wasn’t shy about speaking on this subject.

“There were several talks and it got loud a few times,” Shaqiri said. “Those responsible at Bayern believed my situation would change, it didn’t, and we were right.”

At Inter, Shaqiri was even less cordial.

“To be honest, Inter’s infrastructure is a disgrace. That such a renowned club can’t find a way to invest into the infrastructure is just disappointing,” Shaqiri said. “It’s just more professional in England in terms of diet, regeneration, performance analysis and diverse training sessions.”

After Inter, Shaqiri signed for Stoke City. His career arc has seen him jump from Swiss champions to German champions to an Italian club perennially in the Champions League to a then mid-table club in England.

If you read his career, it’s upside down. It’s easy to imagine stepping from a mid-table team to a Champions League team to one of the best clubs in the world then returning home for a few successful seasons before retirement. But he did it backwards like Benjamin Button.

Yet, aged 26, Shaqiri still has more than enough time to kick his career back towards where it was destined four years ago.

With Stoke relegated, he’s almost certain to transfer. Reports are gaining traction that Liverpool are seriously interested (again), with a different manager. Could he finally get the Merseyside move that he wanted?

Fast-forward to 2018

Shaqiri is no longer a young player. He’s at the age that should be his prime and his next move at the club level must be the right one – or he’ll be resigned to mid-table obscurity with the occasional wonder-goal launching him into the public eye for a few scrolls through Twitter.

Before deciding where he’ll next play his club football, Shaqiri will be focused on producing a strong showing in Russia at the World Cup.

Switzerland have a difficult group, having been placed with Brazil, Serbia and Costa Rica. England fans know better than to doubt Costa Rica these days, after the Ticos surprisingly made it out of their group in 2014. And Serbia will prove a tricky opponent.

There are no easy games. Switzerland will need Shaqiri to be something he hasn’t been throughout his career: consistent. When Switzerland take the field, their attacking verve will be created by him.

World Cup Qualifying didn’t go to plan, as he scored one goal despite taking a team-high 29 shots. Switzerland were able to navigate the arduous European path to Russia on that effort, thanks in part to five goals between starting fullbacks Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez.

Switzerland desperately need Xherdan Shaqiri to take the cape and tie it around his collar. Striker Haris Seferovic scored a quartet of goals and is likely to lead the lines for Switzerland, but if he was standing in full uniform and you ran into him at the mall, you probably wouldn’t know who he is.

Breel Embolo, similarly to Shaqiri, hasn’t ascended the way it appeared he would a few years ago. The young attacker hasn’t played regularly since moving to Schalke, mirroring Shaqiri’s fate when he made his move to Bayern.

Who else is there to pick up the attacking responsibility if Shaqiri fails to show up?

Essentially, if Switzerland are to make serious noise in Russia, it’ll be inspired by his left foot. If it’s muffled, Switzerland will have a short stay in Eastern Europe. If the latter turns into reality, they’ll be hard pressed to even make it to the knockout stages as they did in 2014.

At the 2014 World Cup, the narrative around Shaqiri was of ascendency, destined for greatness. At the 2018 World Cup, it’s a story of a solid career so far, but slightly unfulfilled potential. What will we say at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar?

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Tom Bogert

A fan of repetitive disappointment and frustration, I hold Liverpool and the New York Red Bulls near and dear to my heart.