Xherdan Shaqiri and Fire sporting director Georg Heitz have known each other for more than a decade. Shaqiri launched his career at FC Basel when Heitz was part of the Swiss club’s brass and trusts the Fire executive.
But Shaqiri wanted to make something clear: That relationship isn’t the reason he decided to come to Chicago.
“The project is the most important thing for me, that Georg and the club showed to me,” Shaqiri told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I came not because Georg is a top guy and I can go with him to restaurants. It’s because of the club. Don’t understand me wrong: I didn’t come because Georg is my friend. I came for the project, for Chicago Fire FC.
“This is for me the most important thing at the end of the day, to work hard on the pitch and to try with this team, together as a team, with Georg together, to be successful. This is my goal, to bring this experience from Europe to give to the young players [and] to the experienced players, too, to try to win games and to give confidence to the players, to try to win trophies and to try to bring trophies to Chicago.”
Officially signed Wednesday to a three-year designated-player deal, Shaqiri has a stocked trophy cabinet. An attacking player with flair, he has won Champions League titles with Bayern Munich and Liverpool and was part of Liverpool’s 2020 English champion that gave the famed Reds their first domestic crown in 30 years.
Yet, in an answer reminiscent of former Bayern teammate Bastian Schweinsteiger — who basically had claimed every trophy worth winning and whose competitive hunger didn’t dissipate when he played for the Fire — Shaqiri wants to keep collecting medals with the Fire and improving his game.
Actually, winning trophies with the Fire is one thing Schweinsteiger couldn’t accomplish, and it grated on him as his time with the team ticked away. Shaqiri doesn’t want to emulate that.
“I’m always hungry for titles,” Shaqiri said. “I’m always hungry for trophies. That’s why I’m looking forward to it, to a new country, to also try to win trophies there, to be successful with my team and the whole club.”
That attitude was reflected in a conversation with coach Ezra Hendrickson before Shaqiri signed. Hendrickson said he saw how humble Shaqiri is, despite his name recognition and résumé.
Perhaps most important, Hendrickson relayed that Shaqiri isn’t coming to the Fire for a vacation. That’s still a concern for some when a well-known European player comes to MLS in the second half of his career and gets a big salary.
“All of the things that when I spoke with him that he was saying, I think it’s going to be easy for him to fit in,” Hendrickson said. “We have a young team that he’s going to have to be patient with some of the guys. But I think after speaking to him, I can see that he’s a guy that’s going to come here and do whatever it takes to help us, whether it’s defending, because we talked about everyone defending as a team and we all attack as a team, and he has buy-in to that. So I think that’s going to help all of us.”
If Shaqiri is on his game, he will add another dimension to the Fire. Slated to be their main central attacking midfielder, the Fire will run their offense through him. It wouldn’t be surprising if he takes free kicks, corner kicks and penalties and becomes a focal point for defenses. Shaqiri’s arrival is also key for new striker Kacper Przybylko. It answers the question about who would get the former Philadelphia Union player the ball.
But Shaqiri, 30, knows his move from French side Olympique Lyonnais has more value to the Fire than just on the field. Other than the 2021 home finale when the Fire drew 31,308 fans, the team struggled to attract people to Soldier Field last season. They’re in a crowded sports market competing for eyeballs with more established franchises, and having players worth watching is key for the Fire to make inroads and reach the heights owner Joe Mansueto wants.
This isn’t news to Shaqiri.
“I think it’s a big chance and a big step forward from the club that they want to show the people in Chicago, [where] we know that basketball at the moment and football and NHL are bigger than soccer,” Shaqiri said. “I want, and I think the whole club wants, the people [to start] watching soccer more, but you need to be successful. This is pretty normal in this business, where you want people to [be attracted more] to soccer.
“I think this is a big step from the owner of the club, that they want to move forward to be successful.”
Obviously, it’s very early in Shaqiri’s tenure, but the early returns seem positive. Instead of almost dreading the season, Fire fans are excited to see Shaqiri and the rest of the team kick things off later this month.
“I never thought that American people know me that well and it was going to be like this, how it goes at the moment [with] the people going crazy,” Shaqiri said. “They are really happy that I came to this club. I appreciate that, and I hope I can also make them very happy on the pitch. I know what I can do, and I want to help this club go forward.
“This is an important message, too, for me. I came to be successful, to [work hard] and to try to win trophies with this club.”