If you're good enough, you're big enough. This has long been the standard riposte if anyone should dare to tell a promising youngster he doesn't have the physical stature to make it in the game. And if further evidence was needed, four-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi is hardly the tallest of players. Of course, plenty of hopefuls have already been hailed as the new Messi, but one starlet with a decent claim to that title also has plenty in common physically with the Barcelona star, namely Xherdan Shaqiri.
The Swiss international is exactly the same height as La Pulga at 1.69 m (5 ft 6 ½ in), and has perhaps inevitably already been labelled 'The Messi of the Alps' by fans and the media. But other nicknames such as Ninja Hero Turtle, Zauberzwerg (magic dwarf) and Kraftwürfel (power cube) are also doing the rounds. “It generally doesn't bother me what I'm called," grinned the likeable midfielder, who is mainly known simply as 'Shaq' to his teammates.
Man without fear
When he joined Germany's biggest club Bayern Munich a year ago, plenty of commentators doubted he would make the breakthrough, despite arriving from Switzerland with winner’s medals from three championships, two Swiss cups and two Player of the Year awards.
A full season later, Shaqiri has laid down impressive credentials, with a respectable record of four goals and six assists in 26 Bundesliga appearances, seven outings in the UEFA Champions League (one goal, two assists), and five German Cup appearances, yielding three goals and five assists. Bayern swept the board in terms of honours last season, but a few days before the new campaign, Shaqiri is hoping for an enhanced role: “I'd like to be starting some of the crucial matches. I'm never afraid of anything, and why should I be afraid?"
Versatility is one of the player’s aces, as he can fill almost every attacking position. If he can add a touch more composure and a little more tactical vision in certain situations, he could yet enjoy a big season under new Bayern boss Pep Guardiola. He certainly advanced his case in the club's first competitive match of the 2013/14 campaign, scoring the crucial opening goal as the treble winners eased to a 5-0 German cup first-round victory over fourth-tier Rehden.
The 21-year-old, born in Gjilan in Kosovo and who cost Munich €12 million when he made the switch from FC Basel, is now keen to take more responsibility for his national team. “I'm still one of the younger players, although obviously I've now won trophies with Bayern. So I have to take some responsibility for the young players who’ve just come onto the scene, and for the ones who come after them. Obviously, I want to help and be a leader for the national team."
Shaqiri and the Swiss are more than promisingly placed in the race for a berth at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. “It's gone very well so far. We're top of our group and on course for Brazil," the player commented. He has appeared in all six of his country's qualifiers so far, contributing one goal, and has played a big part in Ottmar Hitzfeld's team recording four victories, two draws and no defeats so far.
The Swiss are four and five points respectively clear of rivals Albania and Iceland, and are the bookmakers’ favourites to claim top spot in the section. Victories in September at home to Iceland and away to Norway could effectively seal Switzerland’s third FIFA World Cup appearance in a row and their tenth in total.
Two ‘Messis’ on the cover
Compared to 2010, Shaqiri is now a key player for the national team. He was still only 18 three years ago and was a surprise squad selection for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, after not featuring at all in qualifying. Shaq made his FIFA World Cup debut in a goalless draw with Honduras, but is now dreaming of adding to that total.
There is another striking similarity between the 'Messi of the Alps' and the real thing, as both claimed the league, cup and Champions League treble at the age of 21. If Bayern and their Swiss starlet can repeat this feat in the new campaign, the Swiss ace would manage something even the gifted Argentine has yet to achieve, retaining the trophy in Europe's elite club competition. Shaqiri himself thinks it is possible: “We could have an equally good season."
Might the “two Messis” one day join forces on the same team? Stranger things have happened, but it seems a remote possibility at the present time. However, anyone who wants to make a detailed visual comparison between the two only need pick up the new FIFA 2014 PC simulation, where the pair do appear together - on the cover of the Swiss edition of the best-selling game.