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Jun 26, 2014

Shaqiri finally shines on global stage

Xherdan Shaqiri scored a hat-trick as Switzerland beat Honduras 3-0 in their final FIFA World Cup group game to book their spot in the last 16.

Xherdan Shaqiri has finally made his mark on the world stage with his magnificent hat trick against Honduras, although it has taken a lot longer than many Swiss would have wanted.

Shaqiri is only 22 but seems to have been around for longer than his age would suggest. His professional debut with FC Basel was way back in the summer of 2009, when he was a 17-year-old and helped them win the double that season.

A surprise inclusion in Switzerland's 2010 World Cup, he played for the last 12 minutes in the 0-0 draw against Honduras in the match that saw Switzerland eliminated in the group stage. Three months later, he scored his first international goal, a 25-metre rocket against England in Euro 2012 qualifying. That was followed by a hat trick against Bulgaria, although Switzerland ultimately failed to qualify for Euro 2012 so there was no chance to make an impact at a major tournament.

In the meantime, he helped Basel to some impressive results in the Champions League, including a 2-1 win over Manchester United. Top European clubs were already taking notice, and at the end of the 2011-12 season, he joined Bayern Munich.

Inevitably, there were questions about whether he had made the right move. Shaqiri plays a deeper and more central role nowadays but was seen as almost a winger at that time, which meant competing with Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben for a place in the side.

- Shaqiri gives credit to teammates
- Shaw: Shaqiri show seals Swiss progress

His first season went as well as could have been expected. Coach Jupp Heynckes rotated his team to cope with the demands of challenging for the Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League. Shaqiri, although not a regular first choice, got plenty of playing time and was highly influential.

"There is no danger of him disappearing into oblivion," Heynckes said. "He has everything a footballer needs, and shows that every day in training."

Heynckes left Bayern at the end of the 2012-13 season, and this past season under Pep Guardiola proved far more difficult. The former Barcelona manager gave Shaqiri fewer opportunities, and the Swiss was plagued by nagging muscular injuries. He did not play at all in the six weeks leading up to the World Cup.

His first two games at the World Cup were widely regarded as disappointing, and he showed his frustration before Wednesday's game.

"It doesn't all depend on me," he said. "It gets on my nerves that more critical things are written about me than the others."

Kosovo-born Shaqiri, a chirpy character who is always joking around with his teammates, is the sort of player you want to succeed. He is happy to talk about the importance of his family and his background, and about the thorny issue of Kosovo immigrants in Switzerland.

Absolute Cracker
Xherdan Shaqiri's hat trick against Honduras marked his arrival on the international stage.

"They come from another culture, have had a different education, and not all of them can adapt," he once said. "That applies just to a few, but then we all have a negative image. I think anyone who is a criminal does not belong in Switzerland and should go back to their home country.

"Only a few fall into that category, but we all get tarred with the same brush.

"I've learned to handle money," he said. "I save up so I can live after my time as a footballer. I learned at home that one must earn everything. My father worked hard; he had to raise a family and support relatives back home."

Cheeky and instinctive, Shaqiri looks like he might have learned the game on the streets of South America, and at 5-foot-6, he has the same squat figure as some of Argentina's more impetuous players.

"He lives on the fun that he has on the pitch, and if there's no fun, it becomes difficult for him. He's a real street footballer," said Thorsten Fink, who coached him at Basel.

Shaqiri clearly enjoyed himself when Switzerland played Brazil in a friendly at the start of this season, when he upstaged his opponents with his audacious dribbling, much to their annoyance. The chance to pit himself against Argentina and Lionel Messi on Tuesday could well bring out the best in him.

Brian Homewood

Brian Homewood lives in Switzerland. He previously spent 20 years in Rio de Janeiro and is a frequent visitor to the Copa America and African Nations Cup. He writes for Reuters news agency and World Soccer magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @brianhomewood.