Xherdan Shaqiri: ‘In sport, you always have a chance to escape’ | Chicago Fire

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Xherdan Shaqiri: ‘In sport, you always have a chance to escape’ | Chicago Fire

There is something about Xherdan Shaqiri. He has a presence. At just 5ft 7in, it’s not his towering height.

The former Liverpool, Stoke City, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan player is in a relaxed mood following a training session with Major League Soccer side Chicago Fire. Casual. Polite. But then I see it. A glance. A flash of the eyes that reveals something more. A reminder perhaps of a long journey that began in Gjilan, Kosovo. Or Yugoslavia as it was, when he was born in 1991.

Shaqiri has been moving since before he could barely walk. After his first birthday, his family made the decision to move to Switzerland. The Yugoslav wars had begun and the region was on the cusp of the Kosovo War. The move provided safety for the family. But it was far from easy. “If you change country, you’re going to a place where you don’t know anybody,” he says. “I did not come from a rich family. My parents worked hard. We did not have the best time. But, sometimes this makes you stronger.”

They set up home in Augst, Switzerland, in 1992. His father found work as a laborer. His mother cleaned office buildings. Money was tight as the family sent as much as they could back to family members they left behind. Shaqiri says he was the only foreigner at his school. And football was his refuge. “In sport, you always have a chance to escape these kind of things. To grow as a person, to be competitive, to learn new cultures.”

Shaqiri’s talent drew the attention of scouts from Swiss side FC Basel. In his first full season after turning professional, he helped the side to win three Swiss titles and two Swiss Cups in just three years. Then in 2012, came a move to Bayern Munich where he was part of the all-conquering, treble-winning 2012-13 team.

A short spell at Inter Milan was followed by a move to Stoke City. But Stoke’s relegation to the championship in 2018 opened the door for Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp to swoop, playing a part in the club’s Champions League and Premier League triumphs. “I will always look back with a lot of pride. I think what we achieved is amazing,” he says, allowing himself a beaming smile.

One of Shaqiri’s career highlights: being a starter (and providing an assist) in Liverpool’s astonishing Champions League semi-final comeback win against Barcelona at Anfield in May 2019. “Who will ever forget what we did that night,” he says, flashing another grin. Liverpool won the tie 4-3 on aggregate and went on to beat Tottenham Hotspur in the final, netting Shaqiri his second Champions League winners medal.

Xherdan Shaqiri squares up to Pepe during Switzerland’s World Cup last 16 loss to Portugal. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

How Liverpool could do with some of that inspiration now. The club is already out of the running for silverware this season while a place in the top four (and Champions League football next season) is looking increasingly unlikely. But Shaqiri feels Klopp is still the one to rebuild the club. “I believe in Jurgen. I hope he stays as long as possible. He’s a big win for the club. I think they’re going to be busy in the transfer market (this summer). But I think it is crucial they make the Champions League so that they can get the players they want.”

There was plenty of hype when Shaqiri signed for Chicago Fire just over a year ago. A club record signing, Fire fell short of reaching the MLS play-offs. The franchise has also struggled so far this campaign but Shaqiri appears determined to change that. “We have to do it. For sure, there is a bit more pressure on me this season. We are working on this and trying to change the mentality and ensure that this is a winning team.”

Away from the pitch, the forward is also enjoying life in Chicago. Although not a fan of the city’s famed deep dish pizza (“If I have a pizza it has to be a proper Italian pizza”), he loves attending US sporting contests, including this year’s Super Bowl in Arizona.

And then there are the international ambitions. After making his debut for Switzerland in 2010, Shaqiri has chalked up an impressive 112 international caps including appearances in four Fifa World Cups to date. The 2026 tournament will be played in the US, Canada and Mexico.

“I hope I can play in that tournament.” He says.“ We know the Americans can organize big things very well. I’m sure it will be one of the best World Cups. It might not be the top sport here, but I think the people will get excited.”

Before that, Switzerland’s focus is on qualifying for Euro 2024 in Germany. That too could be an emotional roller-coaster for Shaqiri as in Group I, Switzerland have been drawn against Kosovo. The place of his birth versus the country that raised him. At the 2018 World Cup, Shaqiri famously had the flags of both countries stitched onto the heels of his boots. On a trip to Kosovo, Shaqiri once visited his former family home. There wasn’t much to see. “Our house was burned down. Stuff was written on the walls. Everything was empty.”

He hopes his return as a footballer for that qualifier will be an altogether more positive experience. “I play for Switzerland. But I was born in Kosovo and I love both countries. I will give 100% for Switzerland. It will be a proud moment for sure. I will enjoy every moment to play there because all of my family is going to come. It’s going to be emotional for me. And I am sure we are going to get a very warm welcome.”

At 31, Shaqiri is entering the twilight years of his career. He’s still on the move. The fire in his eyes, forged in a childhood against a backdrop of war and sacrifice, continue to burn with determination. There is still something about Shaqiri.

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