By James Rhys.
The ‘will they, won’t they’ transfer saga of the Major League Soccer off-season appears to have come to an end with reports on both sides of the pond claiming Xherdan Shaqiri has signed for the Chicago Fire.
While the club has yet to confirm the arrival of the Swiss international, it is believed that the side have agreed transfer terms with Olympique Lyonnais and a medical is imminent.
The diminutive midfielder possesses a jaw-dropping CV, listing Bundesliga behemoths Bayern Munich, Italian icons Inter Milan and Premier League legends Liverpool amongst his previous employers; and has multiple domestic honours, two Champions League titles and two FIFA Club World Cup victories amongst his overflowing medal collection.
Just 30 years old and still playing his football at an elite European level, the Fire have pulled off quite the coup in securing his services, and it is fair to say he instantly become one of the biggest names in the league, perhaps only overshadowed by Toronto’s incoming European Champion Lorenzo Insigne.
BREAKING: Chicago Fire and Lyon are finalizing a deal for midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri per source. Deal not 100% done but close.
Shaqiri, 30, has 100 caps with Swiss national team. Previously with Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. pic.twitter.com/o55K8uWAmp
— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) February 4, 2022
The Shaqiri transfer represents a massive statement of intent from Chicago, but also a significant outlay. The Eastern Conference outfit are reportedly shelling out $7.5m and up to $7m in wages to lure him to Soldier Field.
But what will the Fire be getting for their money?
WFi spoke to Stoke City’s former Head Scout Kevin Cruickshank and former Technical Director Mark Cartwright — two men instrumental in bringing him to the Premier League — to find out what ‘The Alpine Messi’ is really like.
“The first time I saw him, he must have been about 17, for Basel,” says Cruickshank.
“He was just a young lad, obviously small in stature but not as physically big as he is now.
“That was an early concern over his size, but immediately, you could see his talent. He had a fantastic left foot and technically he was top.”
Shaqiri burst onto the scene in the Swiss Super League, part of a dominant Basel side that claimed three back to back league titles and two Swiss Cups between 2009 and 2012.
“The Basel team that he broke into and then became a big part of was a real strong squad,” adds Cruickshank.
“There were a lot of interesting players on that team. I was at Blackburn the first time I saw him, working for Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League, but he moved to Bayern Munich.
“When you’re Blackburn, you can’t compete with the likes of Bayern for these sorts of players.”
Cruickshank continued to follow his progress, watching as he continued to grow, develop and taste more success under the tutelage of Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola in Bavaria.
“When I was at Stoke, there was an opportunity to try and get him in the January he signed for Inter Milan,” he says.
“We were trying to get him as well. Mark Hughes and my Technical Director, Mark Cartwright, flew over to meet him… the deal didn’t get done.”
But following a brief and unsuccessful stint at the San Siro with the Nerazzurri, they would finally get their man.
“Would he really come to Stoke?”
Mark Cartwright recalls thinking at the time.
The then Technical Director had a point…
By that stage, the technically gifted Shaqiri was regarded as the most decorated Swiss player of all time having enjoyed a multitude of domestic successes in both Switzerland and Germany, and he had just picked up his first Champions League medal.
Stoke, on the other hand, had built a reputation as a hard-working but unglamorous side, best known for their physicality, work ethic and Rory Delap’s trebuchet-esque long throws.
But The Potters were working hard at re-inventing themselves. Mark Hughes was the man tasked with moving the side away from ‘Pulis-ball’ and bringing beautiful football to the Britannia.
“Mark Hughes was always very much: ‘leave your mark on the game,'” says Cartwright.
“When we were signing the big players like Bojan and Shaqiri or Arnautovic, we were always like: you could end up at a bigger club but if you come to Stoke and leave a lasting impression on the game here.”
“He saw what we were trying to do.” Adds Cruickshank. “Mark Hughes looked him straight in the eye in the very first meeting they had, he knew we were serious, knew what we were trying to do and that he could help us get to that next level.”
Shaqiri had a mixed time in England. He arrived for a record fee and with a hefty amount of expectation, but he was as capable to disappoint as he was to dazzle.
He was a luxury player, the very antithesis of the hard-working journeyman that had got Stoke to the promised land of the Premier League, and as a result, became the target of ire for the British media – garnering a reputation as lazy and disinterested.
“He wasn’t one of these up his own arse types”
Cartwright says bluntly when asked about these preconceptions, “He was a genuinely decent bloke. He was humble.
Cruickshank concurs, stating that the media’s view of the Swiss star could not be have been further from the truth: “As a person… humble, very humble,” he says.
“I met him when he first came over, drove up to the hotel to meet him and his agents, you tell him about the story of when you first watch him, how you follow him and he was very humble.
“He didn’t come in as a prima donna or anything like that. Not at all.
“Never any problems in the dressing room, played with a smile on his face, trained with a smile on his face, fans loved him as well because he’s got that bubbly personality when he played on the pitch.”
That will be music to the ears of those in Chicago.
The Fire have been desperately seeking someone who has the talent to take them to the next level: “players with that special quality — that you see some of these teams around the league have — that within a second could change the outcome of a game,” as Ezra Hendrickson told WFi just last week.
But also those who possess the experience, leadership skills and mentality to guide their young squad. Both men do not doubt Shaqiri can thrive in that role.
“If he knows he’s going to be the main man, Shaq, like any attacking player likes to score goals, likes to create chances,” says Cruickshank.
“If he goes there with that mindset — that ‘I’m going to be the one that’s going to lead this team to glory’, or whatever you want to call it — I think he can be that man.
“He’s got the confidence in his own ability to do that. I think he’ll throw himself right into it.
“I think he’s seen how much the league has changed over the last few years, you know? It’s no longer the retirement home for players it used to be.
“It’s taken some of the best young talents from South America. You look at some of the players who are now going from Europe into MLS, turning down contracts with good European clubs to go because they see what’s going on there, the development.
“The lifestyle is a big [draw]. I know the States is a massive country and the lifestyle is different everywhere, but I lived there for 18 months, I lived in Portland, Oregon and the lifestyle was amazing out there.
“He’s 30, he’s played at the highest level in Europe, why not go and test yourself in a completely new environment.”
“He went from Stoke to Liverpool and was involved in them winning the league title and had European games,” adds Cartwright.
“He’s at that level and his ability is at that level but he needs to play games, he needs to thrive on being the big fish, and he is going to be over here. It’s as simple as that.
“He’s just got to adjust to the differences to the lifestyles and the game. It’ll be different for him but he has got the quality and the ability to adjust, no matter what.”