Granit Xhaka’s famous will to win, determination, leadership skills and sheer resilience can all be traced back to his upbringing in Switzerland, and more significantly, his parents’ own experiences in Kosovo before he was even born.
Young Granit would have these virtues instilled in him by his parents when growing up in Basel, Switzerland, and they are values that still inspire him to this day – both on the pitch and off it. He says his upbringing shaped how he behaves in everyday life, and underpins his spirit when he is playing as well.
“My main inspiration when I started my career was my dad,” Granit explains. “He played football himself before he got an injury, but it was not just that which inspired me – his life as a whole did. He taught me never to give up on anything, to be strong, mentally tough. He was the guy who inspired me the most.
“He was a professional for a club in Kosovo when he was younger, he was a winger – but unfortunately by the time I was born he wasn’t playing anymore, because he had to stop with injury.
“But really he inspired me more as a role model, rather than on the pitch. He went through a lot of very, very tough moments in his life. He’s always been very strong mentally, and he taught me those same values that I have in football now, but also my life.”
The midfielder, who turns 30 later this month, says he remains very close to his parents, who have been there every step of the way during his career so far.
The Xhaka family also includes Granit’s older brother Taulant of course, who plays international football for Albania. When the two came head-to-head during the 2016 European Championships, both his parents were in the crowd to support them – their mum sporting a half and half Switzerland and Albania shirt!
“My dad is always behind me,” he says. “He knows everything about the pressure of playing football and what we go through. It’s not just him though, my mum as well. She’s a very, very important presence in my life. I can speak in a different way to my mum as I do with my dad, so for me both of them are inspiring, because what they went through when they were young – we just don’t see it now.
“I don’t believe that the new generation today could do that. When my parents left Kosovo before the war, they were not prepared for it, but they did it.
“If we – this generation – had to leave our homes now, we wouldn’t be prepared, we don’t know the language or where we could go to. You don’t know who to trust. You start with zero money, minus money, so to come from where my parents did is difficult to understand and is very inspiring for me, because I don’t think that us – this new generation – could cope with that. It’s a completely different life that we have now.”
Granit started his career with FC Basel in Switzerland – where Taulant still plays – before heading to Germany, aged 19, to sign for Borussia Monchengladbach. His dad, Ragip, moved with him to Germany, while his mum stayed in Switzerland with Taulant. It meant the family were split apart for two years, which Granit said was understandably tough on his parents.
It was another character-building experience for the Xhaka family though, and Granit says he and his brother were originally persuaded to go into football by their parents in a bid to keep them on the straight and narrow.
“One of my big motivations when I started football, especially from my parents, was so that me and my brother didn’t go down the wrong route as kids,” he says. “It can be easy to be distracted when you are young, so they wanted us to play football to help us avoid problems like drugs or trouble when we were growing up.
“At the beginning it’s a good way of using your time, but it also teaches you discipline and respect for other people, so that’s why we got into it at first. I think that was our parents’ first objective when they sent us off to play football.
“Looking back though, I don’t think I would have ended up with different values if I hadn’t gone into football. I was always quite well-behaved as a child. I was good at school, so if I hadn’t become a footballer I think I would be in an office right now, probably trying to build a business. I think I would have liked that challenge.”
How Granit would have utilised his desire and commitment had he not gone into sport will never be known, but he insists that it’s his in-built character that has shaped his football career, rather than the other way round.
"I need people round me to challenge me too, and that’s the mentality I have"
“I’m absolutely inspired by winning and being the very best that you can be,” he states. “I believe that you are born with a winning mentality or as a leader. I don’t believe that you can become that later, I think it’s within you. You either have it or you don’t have it. I like to have this feeling, because without challenges and these objectives in front of you, I don’t believe you can achieve anything. This is how I’ve played all my whole career, and it’s how I’ve lived my life too.
“I love to win of course, but you need to find a balance. In life too. I need challenges, I need people round me to challenge me too, and that’s the mentality I have. I have a lot of passion for football and sport, so I don’t know how I would channel that if I wasn’t playing now,” he adds.
“It was always a dream to be where I am now, playing for my country and for one of the best teams in the world. But you can use that passion in other ways too, in whatever you do. I think that’s how I would live my life whatever I was doing. I’m motivated to win, but that can mean different things away from football as well. I always dreamt of becoming a footballer, to have that passion and love of what I do, and now I’m here I try to always play with the same passion that I had when I was 16 or 17.”
Granit was 23 when we came calling in 2016, and he says he had no hesitation when the chance to join the Gunners came around. “I liked the challenge. That’s what I wanted when I joined. I love a challenge, I love to achieve something new, so I really wanted to join to see what I can do.”
The Switzerland international added that the illustrious names from the club’s past, in particular a legendary midfielder, also inspired him – and not just for what he achieved on the pitch.
“When you go back in the history of Arsenal and what the club has done, it’s amazing,” he adds. “First of all the club has had so many amazing players – people like Patrick Vieira for example. For me he is a proper, proper legend at this football club. Still now, long after his retirement, he’s a legend here because he’s one of those who doesn’t speak any rubbish about the club. He has respect for the club which not everybody does.
“Then of course you have Arsène Wenger, who is an absolute gentleman and a huge part of the footballing history of Arsenal.”
Granit himself is now a big part of the club’s history. He’s played more than 250 times for the first team – at least 100 appearances more than any other player in the squad – winning two FA Cups and appearing in two other cup finals so far. He reveals that reaching these appearance landmarks and leaving his stamp on the club is also a huge motivating factor for him.
“If I’m honest, I knew that I reached 250 games at the end of last season,” he smiles. “So yes I do look at the numbers too. Getting to 250 Arsenal games makes me very proud. If somebody had told me in 2016 when I signed that I will be here for seven years or more, I would have taken that straight away. What I have gone through along the way, and what this club has gone through in that time, yet here I am.
"During the difficult times you find out which people are behind you"
“I’m still playing for the team, still very, very happy here, still working, still enjoying my game. It makes me very proud because I think it shows how hard I’ve worked in that time, how I’ve had trust from the people around me, from my coaches. It makes me very happy to think of that.
“I’ve had much more good times than bad times at Arsenal,” he continues. “The only real down moments I’ve had were the stuff with the fans three years ago, but everything else for me has been very positive, very happy, and there’s been a lot of respect between everyone.
“During the difficult times you find out which people are behind you, and I had a lot of people behind me still when things weren’t as good. Also I have my family of course, they are the first ones there for me.”
There have been more good times so far this season as well. There’s no doubt that Granit has been one of our top performers during our impressive start to the campaign, chipping in with goals and assists, as well as his usual industry in the centre of the pitch.
His input has certainly been appreciated by the supporters, and towards the end of our win at Bournemouth last month, a Granit Xhaka chant started to reverberate around the away end. It was a significant moment, given all that has gone before between the Gunners faithful and our former captain. Asked about that afternoon at the Vitality Stadium, it’s clear how much it meant to Granit.
“It was funny because I was joking with Alex Zinchenko in the warm-up,” he begins. “They were singing his name after just three weeks at Arsenal. I told him ‘Alex I’ve been here for six years and I don’t have a song and you have just got here and you do!’
“So I was joking with him on the pitch beforehand, and then at the end of the game I could hear our supporters singing my name. Maybe they heard me chatting to Alex!
“But seriously, it was an absolutely amazing, amazing feeling for me, because everybody knows what I went through with the fans. That’s in the past now.
“To turn it round and be able to show them the Granit that I always wanted to show them, to feel connected and feel their love gave me much, much, much more self-belief, and also more desire to give them something back.
“So hopefully we can stay with this connection now, not just with me, but with all the players, because it’s very important for us to feel the love from the fans. I was a bit surprised when I heard it, I didn’t know what to do, but I want to say how much it meant to me and how much I appreciate it.”
And the team’s fast start in general? We won our first five league games for only the second time in Premier League history, and, perhaps not surprisingly, Granit puts it down to our work ethic, in particular the work carried out on the training pitches during pre-season.
“Yes, our results show you how hard we were working in pre-season to get to this position,” he states. “At the moment we are doing well, and it’s not usual to win five games in a row in the Premier League, at the start or not, but we still have a lot of games ahead of us.
“We can improve and that’s the good thing, we can see those improvements. It’s always good when you can get better, and I have a good feeling that we are on the right way with that. The most important thing now is keeping our focus day by day, keep working and afterwards let’s see how far it takes us.”
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.