This may sound horrible, but I generally don’t view football players as three dimensional human beings. I mean, obviously they are - they’re people with lives, friends, and familites outside the game. But, since I’ll never meet an Arsenal player in person, I don’t particularly care what they are like off the pitch, care what they do off the pitch, or otherwise engage with them in non-footballing contexts, because, well, I’m busy with my own stuff and I don’t really have the time or inclination to care about football players when they’re not playing football.
But every once in a while, I stumble across something that makes me, if not rethink that stance overall, at least put it on pause for a while. This profile of Granit Xhaka in the Guardian is the latest example of that kind of piece. I was expecting kind of the standard pre-Finals puff piece about overcoming adversity and against all odds, blah blah blah, but then, the very second paragraph hit me:
When Xhaka Sr opened up, he came face to face with police officers. They arrested him and he was taken to jail, where he would spend the next three and a half years. He shared a cell with four other men and he would be let out once each day – for 10 minutes.
Ragip Xhaka was 22 years old, a university student in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and his crime had been to participate in demonstrations against the communist central government in Belgrade. He wanted democracy and freedom. He paid a heavy price for his beliefs.
And right there, I knew this wasn’t going to be the ordinary fawning profile of an over-adulated athlete. The story of Xhaka’s father’s imprisonment, as light as the details are (Xhaka doesn’t talk about it in public, because it’s none of our business), is a pretty amazing backdrop for a look at the career and life of my favorite signing from last year.
Even though his father’s ordeal happened before he was born, the character traits that led to it - belief, determination, and a very straightforward, no-BS way of looking at life - passed down from father to son. It’s also translated into his football - as we all know, Xhaka’s very hard-edged, very aggressive, and very direct. Early in the season, that obviously hurt him, as sendings off in October and January have, unfairly, tagged him as a dirty player, which he clearly is not.
Every non-Premier League player needs time to adapt to the style of the league and its refereeing; it’s one thing to hear about the Premier League, it’s another entirely to play in it and see it for yourself. The refereeing, in particular, is what takes a while to adapt to:
Xhaka has been startled by the strictness of the Premier League’s referees. Weren’t they supposed to let more go in England – the home of physical football? Privately, he feels that it was more of a man’s game in the Bundesliga.
The Swansea sending off was a case in point. The chop on Modou Barrow was cynical but the winger was not in an overly dangerous position and Xhaka clearly thought he would take the yellow card and regroup. There was surprise when the referee, Jon Moss, reached for the red.
And frustratingly, after that second sending off, Xhaka still had some adjusting to do - he was booked in five straight matches, and all of a sudden, “Xhaka is a liability” became the established narrative. I even wrote something along those same lines after the Burnley red card.
But guess what? There’s a long time between January and May. And in that long time, Granit Xhaka has figured some stuff out. He’s playing a lot smarter, he’s fouling a lot less, and he’s becoming exactly what I was so excited for last summer - a key to Arsenal’s midfield who isn’t afraid to get all 1990’s on someone if the need arises, but who has 2010s-era technical ability.
The best part of Granit Xhaka is that he’s 24. He’s just now entering the prime of what can be a stellar career, and he’s doing it the only way he can - unblinkingly, uncompromisingly, and without regard for what anyone thinks except himself and his teammates. He’ll be a crucial part of tomorrow’s match, and he’s poised to be a crucial part of Arsenal’s midfield for several seasons to come. I couldn’t be happier.