GENEVA — A captain wearing the No. 10 shirt has an iconic status in international soccer.
Granit Xhaka might not fit everyone’s idea of a classic example, but the Arsenal midfielder’s importance to Switzerland is valued at home.
Xhaka makes the Swiss team tick and is prized by national team coach Vladimir Petkovic just as he has been by his club manager, Mikel Arteta.
If Switzerland is to break its streak of last-16 exits at this year’s European Championship, the 28-year-old Xhaka likely will play a big part as he approaches 100 games for the “Nati.”
A clear example of Xhaka’s steady influence came in qualifying in September 2019, at home against an improving Denmark now ranked No. 10 in the world.
Switzerland led 3-0 when Xhaka, who scored the second goal with a laser shot, was substituted in the 79th minute. Without him, the team dropped deeper, lost its composure and finished the game in a 3-3 draw.
Later that month, Xhaka was made Arsenal captain by then-manager Unai Emery. The honor lasted only a few weeks, however, with Xhaka caught mouthing a profanity at fans who jeered him after being replaced during a home game.
Xhaka seemed sure to leave Arsenal until Arteta replaced Emery soon after.
“He’s a natural leader,” Arteta said of Xhaka this season. “He’s someone who is always 1,000% committed, not just for himself but to help all his teammates all the time.”
There is mental toughness in a player whose family roots are in Kosovo and Albania, and whose father was a political prisoner in the former Yugoslavia.
Those family ties were clear when Xhaka and former Basel teammate Xherdan Shaqiri, also Kosovar-Albanian, scored to beat Serbia 2-1 in a highly charged game at the 2018 World Cup. Both celebrated their goals with hand gestures celebrating Albania that ignited an old debate in Swiss soccer doubting the patriotism of dual-nationality players.
Ill-judged public comments cost the Swiss soccer federation’s secretary general his job weeks after the World Cup, and Xhaka’s elevation to the captaincy was questioned by former players.
Under Xhaka’s on-field leadership, Switzerland advanced to the 2019 UEFA Nations League finals, topped its Euro 2020 qualifying group and won its first two qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup.
Still, the Swiss face a tough task to advance from Group A, first on the opening Saturday against Wales in Baku then returning to their base near Rome to play Italy.
The likely decisive third game is back in Baku where Turkey’s ties to Azerbaijan mean it probably will be treated like the home team.
The core of a good Swiss team is still there. Xhaka, Shaqiri, defenders Fabian Schär and Ricardo Rodriguez, and forward Haris Seferović are all 28 or 29. Only Schär has fewer than 70 international appearances.
Remo Freuler is also 29, though a late developer in Atalanta’s midfield. A strong midfield includes Denis Zakaria, one of the Borussia Mönchengladbach group in the Swiss squad who has long been linked with Manchester City.
Xhaka, Rodríguez and Seferović grew up together on the 2009 Under-17 World Cup-winning team. It might be time for them to have a deep run at a senior tournament. ___
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