This story first appeared in the September edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Were it not for his father, Granit Xhaka would probably never have realised his Premier League dream. Granit was a typical 10-year-old boy - he spent his money on Panini stickers and played football wherever he could, be it in the house, on the streets or at local club, Concordia Basel.
“I was always with the ball when I was younger,” he says with a smile. His older brother, Taulant - who has always been a big influence on Arsenal’s new midfielder - did the same and soon came to the attention of hometown side FC Basel, the most successful Swiss club this century.
- VIDEO: Watch Granit Xhaka's first Arsenal interview
- Pictures: Xhaka in Arsenal colours
- How will Granit fit in Arsene Wenger's system? Find out in Arsenal Analysis
The boys’ dad, Ragip, vowed that his eldest son would only be allowed to sign on one condition - that Basel took Granit too. The club agreed and neither brother has looked back since. Earlier this summer, the pair became the first siblings to play against one another at a European Championship, when Switzerland beat Albania 1-0 in the second game of the tournament. Granit was named man of the match.
It’s clear that kin is of paramount importance to Granit. He identifies Taulant as his best friend and role model and, when speaking to this publication in our July issue, mentioned the importance of the Arsenal squad being “like a family”. I
t’s encouraging then, to learn that Granit has quickly established himself in the dressing room. His command of English is rapidly improving too, although he gave us this interview in German - one of several languages he speaks.
When the charismatic midfielder joined Arsenal, he spoke about fulfilling the aim of playing in England. It may not have been possible had it not been for his father’s intervention all those years ago.
Now that he’s arrived in the Premier League, the 23-year-old is desperate to achieve more of his objectives, and as he told us when taking a break from training in Los Angeles at the beginning of August, the first of those is to help Arsenal achieve plenty of success this season.
Granit, let’s go back to the start. Where does your love of football stem from?I had a really nice childhood. I started playing football when I was very young. I was four and a half when I began to play for Concordia Basel. My brother is only one year older than me so I would always go and play with him. We would play wherever we could - in the park, on the road, anywhere.
You were really young when you joined Basel - how did the move happen? They actually only wanted my brother and not me. But my dad said ‘either you take both or you take neither’, so they signed us both. When we were younger, I think people thought that one of us would go in the direction of sport and one of us in the direction of school.
I was the one people expected to go towards education but I was kind of convinced to play football when I was about four and a half. My brother and my dad would go and play and started to take me with them. I started to enjoy it more and more and at the end it was all I wanted to do.
In which ways have you changed as a player since you started your professional career? Well I made my debut at Basel when I was 17. Two years later I moved to Gladbach and I made a mistake in that I put lots of pressure on myself. I wanted to do everything at once and prove to the fans that I was worth the transfer fee. I think as a result I struggled in my first six months. Maybe I talked too much off the pitch and didn’t do enough on it. That’s an experience I definitely don’t want to have again here.
How did you rectify that?I made simple mistakes - things like misplacing five-metre passes. But I’ve become very strong mentally and I think that period of time after moving from Basel to Gladbach played a big part in that.
Things turned out well at Monchengladbach though, and you even captained them last season. What did you gain from that? It was a massive honour for me. I had four wonderful years at Gladbach. My start there wasn’t the easiest. It’s tough to move away from home when you’re 19 and have a slightly different mentality. But to lead the side in my final year was a big honour for me and a sign of real trust from the manager.
Are you a player who thrives on taking responsibility? I’ve taken responsibility ever since I was a little kid. When I was in kindergarten, my parents would give me the house key and not my brother, despite him being a year older. I’m someone who likes to take responsibility and I’m not afraid to speak when something needs to be said. That’s a role I enjoy.
You mentioned your brother - of course you represent Switzerland but he plays for Albania. Can you tell us about your links to that country? I was born and grew up in Switzerland, in Basel, and visited the birthplace of my parents for the first time when I was 12. They had fled the war in the former Yugoslavia. Loads of my relatives, practically my whole family in fact, are from Kosovo and ever since I was 12, I always visited on holiday in the summer and the winter. It’s a small country with a difficult past because of the war but, through sport, I think it’s heading in a good direction now.
You played against your brother at Euro 2016. What was it like? I hope I’ll never have to experience that again. It was a pretty unique feeling, having to play not only against my brother but against my own land - I have Albanian roots. It wasn’t easy to play against Taulant. The emotions and the pressure were so high but, thanks to God, it all went well. As soon as the draw was made, it became a big talking point in our family.
We spoke about it almost daily but before the game, we all felt good. I think it was most difficult for my parents. It’s tough for them because they’ve lived in Switzerland for 25 years and also have Albanian roots. For them to have two children on the pitch playing directly against each other - we play in the same position - wasn’t exactly easy. But really it was only a football match. After the game we swapped shirts and I’ll definitely hang up Taulant’s shirt in a place where our children will hopefully see it in the future.
It sounds as though you are very close to Taulant… He was a real role model for me when I was younger. Even today, I’ve still got a really good relationship with him. I don’t just see him as my brother but as my best friend too. I’m the younger one but we’ve always had a really good understanding. We talk all the time, when things are going well and when things are going badly. I speak to him every day and my relationship with him is very important to me.
How would you sum up your experience at the Euros? It was my first European Championship and it was a really nice feeling to take part in a tournament like that, to play against the best national teams in Europe. Unfortunately we didn’t quite reach our goal - we really wanted to reach the quarter-finals but couldn’t quite do that. With a bit of luck, we would have, but we lost on penalties.
In terms of my own performances, you always feel as though you could have done more but I was quite satisfied with how I did. The pressure on me was really high having moved to Arsenal before the tournament started. The media put some pressure on us too but I didn’t put any on myself. I just love playing football, I love having fun on the pitch.
How long did it take you to come to terms with your penalty miss in the shootout against Poland? These things happen to everyone - even Messi missed one the day after I did. After the game, the journalists asked what I was feeling and I said straight away that the next time I’m involved in a penalty shootout, I’ll take one again. Even if I were to miss, I’d take one again and again until I score. It’s a horrible feeling but somebody has to miss. Unfortunately it was me against Poland but I hope that next time neither I nor any of my team-mates have to experience it.
You’re by no means the only member of the Switzerland squad with a foreign heritage. What are the benefits of that? Yeah, we have plenty of ‘secondos’ - people that grew up in Switzerland but have roots in other countries, like I do with Albania. You can only see having a multi-national team positively because every country has a different mentality. That can have a positive impact in sport and I think Switzerland is an example of that.
Let’s talk about Arsenal. You met your team-mates for the first time after the Euros. How have they welcomed you? I’ve been welcomed really well. My team-mates are great - very friendly, very nice and they know when to have fun and when to be serious. That’s why I feel really happy here.
As a new player, how much did visiting California with your new team-mates help you to settle? I think it always helps when you’re with each other for almost 24 hours a day, when you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together. You get to know each other better and quicker, and that’s important too.
Tell us a bit about your initiation song… It’s an Albanian song, one that I like and that has a theme of love. It was a massive hit in Albania recently and it’s not a difficult one to sing, which is why I chose it.
How did your team-mates react to it? I’m not the best singer, which you probably saw! But I think it’s something you have to do as a new player. My team-mates probably didn’t understand it but it’s a nice song.
What was it that made you want to sign for the club? There were many points. Arsenal are a team that I’ve admired for years because of the attractive playing style. That’s a style that fits to me - I’m not the sort of person who particularly enjoys seeing only the long ball played. I like keeping the ball on the ground, I like playing football. Arsenal’s style influenced me. Then there’s the manager, the staff and the players. Having the opportunity to play and train with the squad here under the guidance of a manager like Arsène Wenger is something you can only say yes to.
When did you first speak to the boss and what did he say to you? We spoke in German because he can speak that language really well. I’d actually spoken to him last year and can still remember what he said then. He told me if I wanted to come to paradise, I should move to the Premier League. That conversation was a big factor for me.
"I’m not somebody who gives up. I love playing football, I always want the ball and I’m not scared to play a risky pass"
Your signing generated plenty of excitement among the Arsenal fans. How much of that did you notice? I’m someone who needs that. I need that love from the fans and I need trust from all sides. I’ve really noticed that on tour in California. I went to an event and the fans there already had a song for me. I hadn’t even played a game for Arsenal at that point, so it showed that they have expectations. I will give my absolute everything in every game to try and give something back to them.
Maybe not everything will work out for me, but one thing they need to know is that I will always give my all. That’s the sort of person I’ve always been. I read some of the comments and it makes me proud to know that they expect a lot from me. I hope I can bring my mentality and some of what I’ve learnt in the past to this squad. I really hope this will be a successful season.
On the subject of the supporters, we saw that you met hundreds of them on holiday after the Euros. How did that happen? They found out that I was going to Pristina on that day. The organisers of Arsenal’s fans’ club in Kosovo found out and waited for me at the airport. They spoke to my uncle to ask whether I would be available to meet up with them for an hour or two. I enjoyed doing it but I didn’t expect so many of them to turn up. It was in a coffee bar and the whole place was rammed with fans. I was even given a present to pass on to Arsène Wenger - a nice portrait of him - which I’ll make sure to hand over to him.
Finally Granit, what can the Arsenal supporters expect from you? I’m not somebody who gives up. I love playing football, I always want the ball and I’m not scared to play a risky pass. I’m a fighter too, and I think that’s a big advantage to have in the Premier League.
More quizzes coming soon!
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