Xherdan Shaqiri: Why the 'Alpine Lionel Messi' is loving life in Stoke
Interview: Stoke City's marquee summer signing explains why a 'flip flap' against Chelsea proves he is getting back to his best
It was, Xherdan Shaqiri says, a sign; a sign that his confidence is coming back. A sign that he is returning to the level he knows he can play at; that the ‘Alpine Messi’, as he was once dubbed, is starting to scale the heights again
It is towards the end of this interview, the first he has done with a newspaper since he joined Stoke City, when Shaqiri’s eyes light up. “Ah, the ‘flip flap’,” he says, nodding. “Against Chelsea? Yes. Like this.” And with that Shaqiri quickly rises from his seat and even more quickly shifts his left foot as if moving an imaginary ball in front of him.
“First outside and then inside,” he explains as he demonstrates again the skill that bamboozled full-back Baba Rahman in Stoke’s recent Premier League victory over Chelsea at the Britannia Stadium.
“I like it,” Shaqiri says. “I like it a lot. When you are skilful you can try it – but you have to know you can do it. If you try it and it’s not the right time then it’s no good. But you also have to have the confidence to do it, of course. It’s natural; it’s not something I find difficult. For some players, then maybe. It’s not natural to every player and it’s not something you can do every match. But when I feel good, then I can try it.”
His explanation is offered without a hint of arrogance (Shaqiri is surprisingly shy up until this moment) but he delivers it with a sense of fun, enjoyment; a little glint of mischief. Even a wink.
The ‘flip flap’, also known as the elastico, the elastic dribble, was a signature move of Ronaldinho, a Brazilian move, a feint to fool the defender that depends on exceptional close-control and balance and an explosive shift of pace. Shaqiri, stocky, powerful, low centre of gravity, wand of a left-foot, has that. When he is confident.
And so now does Stoke. After this interview is complete, and before the photographs are taken, Shaqiri grabs some lunch in the canteen at the club’s training ground. He pulls up a chair at one of the tables. Already around it are Bojan Krkic, Marc Muniesa and Marko Arnautovic – who then, during the photo-shoot, loudly teases Shaqiri as to why he is being interviewed given he has not scored a goal yet this season. The Austrian has three – including that acrobatic winner against Chelsea. Shaqiri reminds him of his involvement in creating it.
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So that is two players from Barcelona – and a third then walking past in Ibrahim Afellay; and, in Arnautovic, one from Inter Milan – who also sold Shaqiri for £12million to Stoke, a club record fee.
Shaqiri was born an ethnic Albanian in Kosovo before the civil war torn Yugoslavia apart. His family moved to Switzerland when he was a baby. He has, he says, “both mentalities” but is proudly Swiss and first came to prominence at Basle, before moving to Bayern Munich and then Inter. He is one of Europe’s best-known young stars and he knows he will also have to deal with the inevitable question: so why now Stoke?
“For me, it’s important to feel good,” he explains. “And I also want this club to grow, to go up (the league). So it was always a good decision for me. We have a good team, good players and you can see that in the Premier League anything can happen.
“I don’t know how it was here before [with manager Mark Hughes] but I heard. I heard about the (type of) football (then). So also the team is now getting better and it plays very good football. When teams come to Stoke they are welcome to come and play but it will be difficult for them to come and take three points.” It has, however, been away from home that Stoke have been most effective of late.
They head to Sunderland on Saturday 11th in the Premier League table but that does not tell the story. They are just two points off sixth-placed West Ham United having taken 16 points from their last six league matches – the same as table-toppers Leicester City. There have been three 1-0 away wins in that sequence while, as well as beating them in the league, Stoke have also knocked Chelsea out of the Capital One Cup to set up Tuesday’s quarter-final at home to Sheffield Wednesday.
Winning a trophy is important for Shaqiri – already, at just 24, the most decorated player in the history of Swiss football. During 2013 alone he gathered five trophies with Bayern – the Bundesliga title, German Cup, Champions League, Uefa Super Cup and Fifa Club World Cup. There have been 13 winners medals in all - last season was the first since he turned professional in 2009 that Shaqiri ended without a league winner’s medal - plus involvement in two World Cups including a hat-trick against Honduras in Brazil last year.
Shaqiri, who speaks good, if clipped, English, admits that, at Inter, and in the final days of Bayern, he lost his way and that the attention at times was simply too much. “It was a decision for me to come somewhere where I could be (myself) and where it would be a little quieter,” Shaqiri explains.
“I wanted to be a little quieter. I didn’t want to be always at the front every day (in the spotlight). Also in Switzerland I am always on the front.
So also less attention, then. That was also part of my decision to come here and to work more quietly. I can concentrate on my football and getting to the level I want to be at.
“I hope (to do that) soon. I need to keep playing a lot of games to come back to that level, but I hope it will happen soon. Of course it is normal when you have a big name and people know you from everywhere that they wonder ‘why did he go there and not there?’ But, for me, I am very, very happy to be here and I know having been here now for some time that I made absolutely the right decision. I feel very well.”
It sounds similar as to why Bojan, who had grown tired of going on loan, also choose Stoke. He wanted to be wanted. He wanted to play. “It’s the most important thing especially for a young player who wants to improve, to improve his talent and learn and the best way to do that is to play in the games. It’s really important for me to play a lot of games this season and to come back to my level,” Shaqiri stresses.
Nevertheless he thought long and hard about joining Stoke – who had tried to sign him before he moved to Inter, where he failed to get on with Roberto Mancini (who, of course, had succeeded Hughes as manager or Manchester City). When Hughes and Stoke resurrected their interest last summer Shaqiri delayed - giving the impression he might be waiting for other offers.
However he maintains that it was “a dream move” adding: “It was always my dream to come to the Premier League because I love this league and I love this country. It’s an amazing place. I enjoy the football here throughout the weekend and I always followed this league, everything that happens here, that happens around it (in the transfer market).”
“Yes, every good player wants to come to the Premier League,” Shaqiri claims. “That is why a lot of good players will come here every summer. Next year there will be more. For sure.” Indeed Shaqiri reveals he has had “a lot” of calls from players around Europe asking him what it is like in the Premier League – and, specifically, at Stoke. So will, soon, people stop asking: why Stoke?
“Of course, I think so,” he says. “Also a lot of players, good players ask me ‘can you ask them (if they would be interested in signing me)?’ And I like this.” The money is, obviously, important. The next television deal will increase further the Premier League’s financial might. Estimates are that all 20 Premier League clubs will be among the 30 richest in Europe.
But Shaqiri is adamant there were far more important factors than money. “We had a lot of conversations, over a long time, with the club and Mark Hughes was also really important for me,” he says.
“It was probably the most important part of my decision to have that conversation with Mark Hughes. We had a very good conversation and I could see that this was a club that was growing up so it made it perfect for me to come here.” Hughes’ reputation resonates. “I know him, I know him before as a coach and as a player also,” Shaqiri says of the former Bayern and Barcelona, as well as Manchester United striker.
“A player who played for big teams. So he knows what it is like to be a part of big teams and to win trophies so I also know what he wants and I see that out there on the pitch in every training (session) and game. How he wants to improve us. It’s very important to have a coach who wants to win every single game and who approaches them like they are not a problem – whether it is against Sunderland or Man City or against anyone.
“At the moment that is happening and we look good. So, after that, anything can happen. I am like every player – I want to win trophies. And I want to play in Europe with Stoke. This is what I want to achieve.
“And, like I say, I need every single game to play. And I need games because I have to come back to my level. For the European Championships (with Switzerland next summer) it’s most important for me to be at a good level, back to a good level. So, to come here, it was the perfect decision.” The confidence is returning. And so is the ‘flip flap’. Will we see the move again soon? “I keep that secret,” Shaqiri says.