In many senses, Xherdan Shaqiri is an old-school Designated Player: a highly accomplished European star brought to Chicago Fire FC to bear substantial responsibilities both on and off the field, to not only hit the net and win games, but also fill seats at Soldier Field.
He’s effectively become the face of his new club on arrival – literally, in the case of the welcome billboard splashed with his likeness that the Fire arranged along I-90 downtown – and he’s surely a big factor in the big crowd expected for the Windy City side’s 2022 home opener vs. Orlando City SC on Saturday (6 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, on DAZN in Canada).
“Bring the glory back”
That’s just fine with the Albanian-Swiss attacker, whose $7.5 million price tag smashed the club’s record transfer fee. He’s had his eye on MLS for a while, understands what is expected and is aware of the Fire’s chronic underachievement going back quite some time. And he’s ready to bear all that it entails.
“Some players came [to MLS] very late in age,” Shaqiri, 30, told MLSsoccer.com in a recent 1-on-1 conversation. “Me, I’m in a good age and in my prime. So I’m really looking forward to play here, and to give my experience to this club, to these players, and try to be successful. As we know, the club didn’t perform very well in the last few seasons. So my goal is to bring the glory back and to go forward with this club and yeah, to go a new way.”
There’s a back-to-the-future quality about his recruitment, a nod to the Eastern European elements of the city’s blue-collar character and the Fire teams that reflected it in their glory days, starring the likes of Peter Nowak and Lubos Kubik. Their trophy case is spotlighted by an MLS Cup-U.S. Open Cup double in 1998, their expansion year, plus a Supporters’ Shield in 2003.
Shaqiri was just a toddler when the bloody civil war in the former Yugoslavia drove his family from their home in Kosovo, forcing his parents to rebuild their lives in a new land, not unlike the experiences of many in Chicago’s immigrant communities.
“Of course, many times I am thinking about this, where I came from, where I am and what I achieved,” said Shaqiri, who maintains a fierce pride in his heritage while also proudly representing Switzerland. “But I’m a guy who looks forward, and I’m hungry for success and for titles. So my big dream is for this club to win a trophy and this is my goal – and to bring also people in the stadium in Chicago, because as you know, basketball, football, baseball, ice hockey is at the moment in front of soccer and I want – and we want – to change that. And for that we need success.”
“I will give everything”
After so many years of disappointment, making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs once since 2013, the Fire faithful are hungry not only for success but style and spirit as well. And with his passionate, explosive personality, “the Cube of Power,” as he was fondly nicknamed at Bayern Munich, already looks like a fitting match.
“I just want to say I will give everything for them and for the club, in every game, in every sense,” he said when asked what message he would send to Fire supporters. “I try to push the team and try to win trophies. This is my goal and I will give everything. I can’t wait, of course, to see them in the stadium, in our home stadium, to cheer us and help us to win games.”
He says he was surprised to see the extent of the excitement and promotional rollout around his arrival, from both fans and the club.
“I’m really, really happy to be here,” he said, “and of course the warm welcome – was pretty much hot, not warm welcome! – was very nice and yeah, I’ll never forget this.”
As has so often been the case with landmark signings in MLS, there were elements of both strategy and luck in his recruitment. Shaqiri is well acquainted with CFFC sporting director Georg Heitz from their time together at FC Basel in their homeland, and when his summer move from Liverpool to Lyon quickly turned sour amid friction with manager Peter Bosz, a door opened.
“It was more like tactically, and personally with the coach, I didn’t want to work [at Lyon] anymore. And that’s why I choose to quit France,” he explained.
“Georg Heitz was here and he was always in contact with my brother [who is Shaqiri’s agent]. I wanted to go away from France. And so the opportunity came. Of course, I thought about it a few days and for me, it was pretty much clear. I think it was a big chance to come here, to a new country, new league. MLS is growing and it’s getting better every year.”
Chicago drew 0-0 at Inter Miami CF in his debut last weekend, a modest result with some promising underlying data points. While Shaqiri can contribute in multiple roles in the Fire’s baseline 4-2-3-1 formation, first-year boss Ezra Hendrickson prefers to deploy his new ace as a traditional No. 10. In kind, Shaqiri played five key passes, drew five fouls and handled many of his side’s set-piece duties in Fort Lauderdale.
“I want to be … a role model”
With a resurgent flow of homegrown talent and several youthful signings from abroad, the Fire have quietly become one of the league’s youngest squads and Shaqiri says he’s eager to provide leadership and guidance to the huge potential he sees in the group.
“I take the lead always also in the Swiss national team, and now it’s going very well,” he said. “I came also here to help this team with my experience. We have a very young team, we have a lot of youngsters; I want to be also an idol for them, a role model, I can help them anytime they need me. And I like to be with the young players too.
“Because I know how it is. I was also young. I know how it is to play with older guys who have a big status, and I just want to give them this experience too, give them also freedom to perform. I think this is for me, the most important, to give them the confidence that they can win.”
Many North American viewers got introduced to Shaqiri when he scored a famous 90th-minute goal to secure a comeback win over Serbia in the 2018 World Cup, helping Switzerland advance out of the group phase and sparking controversy with his Albanian-themed celebrations. He’s hoping to produce more such heroic moments in Qatar later this year, earning 100 caps and counting with 26 goals.
Shaqiri discussed his Stateside move with Swiss national team manager Murat Yakin before signing off on it, and both believe the MLS calendar will mesh well with the unique timing of this World Cup, for which the Nati have already qualified.
“I think it is perfect for me because we’re going to play in winter, it’s the first time the World Cup’s going to be in winter and I’m really looking forward to this too,” he said. “I’m going to finish here, hopefully for us it will end in November [MLS Cup is Nov. 5] and so I can go then with good feelings to the national team and try to perform again for my country.”
He knows the ensuing months in MLS will pose a range of new tests given the league’s physicality, parity, extensive travel and diverse conditions. For now, at least, it’s all part of the adventure.
“I want to perform in any weather, in any pitch, doesn’t matter for me. I want to win games,” he said. “We need to play hard, we need to give everything and then everything is possible in 90 minutes. I want to have big goals with this team and I’m looking forward to going through good and bad times with them.”