As the man they call the Kraftwürfel ('Power Cube'), Zauberzwerg ('Magic Dwarf') or Shaq Attack, Xherdan Shaqiri boasts not only a remarkable array of nicknames but phenomenal skills on the pitch. The Swiss international’s lively and agile play and adept dribbling are known and loved by his country’s football fans, and he has been a key member of coach Vladimir Petkovic’s starting line-up since almost singlehandedly firing Switzerland to the Round of 16 at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ with an impressive hat-trick.
By contrast, the 23-year-old has endured a challenging period in his club career in recent years. Although his 2012 move from Basel to Bayern Munich was greeted with much fanfare, he never completely established himself with the German giants. After spending half a season in Italy with Inter Milan, Shaqiri – whose honours during his stint in the Bavarian capital include the UEFA Champions League and three Bundesliga titles – headed for the English Premier League and Stoke City in search of fresh momentum. FIFA.com interviewed the man with 48 caps and 17 goals for his country.
You can now call the Premier League home after spells in the Bundesliga and Serie A. What is it that makes each of these top leagues so strong?
Xherdan Shaqiri: The key element in Germany is discipline. The Germans are very focused on playing disciplined football. Football in Italy was very tactically oriented, and now here in England I can sense a real emphasis on attacking play. The football here is tough and spectacular, and I’m enjoying it. Although I’ve only played a few matches in the Premier League so far, I feel I’ve arrived in the best league in the world.
You have played for Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and now Stoke City – but there is no doubt that Stoke have yet to achieve the same level of international recognition as your previous two clubs. What appeals to you most about this new challenge?
Yes, although it’s true that Stoke don’t yet have the same kind of international reputation, the club is pursuing ambitious targets. They want to establish themselves in Europe and that’s what tempted me here. Stoke are offering me the opportunity to continue developing both as a player and as a person. Above all I want to play, perfect my game and move forward with the team.
Having featured at the last two FIFA World Cups in 2010 and 2014, you are now a constant presence in Switzerland’s starting line-up and are undoubtedly among the national team’s top performers. What characterises your play and does La Nati’s footballing ethos suit you particularly well?
We played great football under Ottmar Hitzfeld. He made the breakthrough by utilising plenty of young players and throwing them in at the deep end; I was one of them. This confidence in youth helped to push Swiss football forward. We’re playing high-quality, attractive and attacking football, and that fits my style perfectly. We’ve succeeded in setting new benchmarks in recent years, with many young players making a name for themselves with exceptional performances not only for the national team but also for their clubs. As a result, many of them have made the leap to the Bundesliga or are playing for other foreign sides.
At the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, you and the Nati progressed past the group stage and were only narrowly beaten 1-0 after extra time by eventual runners-up Argentina. What do Switzerland still need in order to overcome the world’s biggest sides such as Germany, Argentina or Brazil?
Yes, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was an unforgettable experience. We made it to the Round of 16 and were then edged out by big opponents in Argentina, who were aiming to lift the trophy. The match itself was an extremely emotional experience, and we very nearly managed to win it. I would say that it wasn’t luck but efficiency that made the difference. If you want to succeed against teams like Argentina, you have to be able to take advantage of every opportunity you get, no matter how small. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to do that and that’s what made the difference. The Argentinians were simply more ruthless and made the most of the chances they got.
Scoring three goals in one match is always special, but how did it feel to bag a hat-trick at the World Cup, the biggest stage of all?
The game against Honduras was our third group match in Brazil, and after a 2-1 win over Ecuador and a 5-2 defeat by France it was clear that only a win would be enough to take us to the Round of 16. As players, we were extremely focused at this stage and were always convinced that we could progress to the next phase of the tournament in Manaus. We already knew that the media and others had asked many questions after our resounding loss to the French, but we were determined not to let it drive us crazy and remain focused on our job. Although my hat-trick was probably the most obvious statistic from that match, we showed what we could do as a team. I managed to score three goals because of the excellent support I received. Although the match ball still serves as a reminder of that success, we did the same thing afterwards as we had after losing to the French: forget about it and focus on the challenge ahead. Only by doing that were we able to deliver such a strong performance against Argentina.
Vladimir Petkovic took over from Ottmar Hitzfeld as national team coach after the 2014 FIFA World Cup, while first-choice goalkeeper Diego Benaglio also announced his retirement from international football. What changed as a result and how did you deal with it as a team? After all, EURO qualification has gone well for you so far despite some initial difficulties.
Yes, there were some changes. A couple of players retired and others are no longer part of the squad. The core has remained the same but a couple of new young players have come in as well. We’re fortunate in Switzerland that many promising youngsters are already playing in the Super League or have made their breakthrough at foreign clubs. These players have integrated perfectly; they not only play great football but also have personalities that fit with the team. That, combined with a new coach who has been trying out a few things, has sustained our national team’s success, and I think that’s apparent in the current EURO qualification campaign.
Looking ahead to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, what do you think the team can achieve? Will they qualify again and could they even top their 2014 result?
Every team wants to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, including Switzerland, but there’s still a long way to go. EURO 2016 in France is currently our main focus. In any case, our aim is to qualify for every tournament and I’m very confident about our chances. We’ve shown in the past that we can do it. We’ve got a great mix of experience and youth in our team - a team that can still bring plenty of joy to the Swiss fans.
If you believe the ratings in the EA Sports game FIFA 15, then your strengths are acceleration (92), dribbling (86) and shot power (84), while defending (57) and heading (37) are among your weaknesses. Would you agree with that?
(laughs) Yes, I’d already noticed that! It’s definitely true that my strengths are dribbling, shooting power and acceleration, and yes, heading is one of my weaknesses – but I’d give myself a higher score for defending.