1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Euro 2024: The remarkable rise of Granit Xhaka

Oliver Moody
July 4, 2024

Granit Xhaka has faced heavy criticism over the years. Yet, perseverance and unwavering belief in his own ability have helped make Switzerland surprise Euro 2024 contenders, and Xhaka an unlikely Ballon d'Or candidate.

Granit Xhaka grimaces as he looks towards the center of the screen
Granit Xhaka has played 129 matches for SwitzerlandImage: Lee Smith/REUTERS

Granit Xhaka as a potential Ballon d'Or candidate.

Until recently, that sentence would only ever have been said in jest, for a player so often the source of fans' frustration at club level, never more so than when he played for Premier League side Arsenal.

It's doubtful that even Xhaka himself has ever seriously believed he may one day win football's top individual award.

But, following Switzerland's Round of 16 victory over Italy at Euro 2024, with the midfielder in imperious form, there have been, possibly light-hearted, calls for the team's captain to succeed Lionel Messi as the de-facto world player of the year.

Reaching the Euros in peak form

Xhaka has picked up player-of-the-match awards in two of Switzerland's four Euro 2024 matches thus far and is key to the Swiss game, both in and out of possession.

The midfielder makes more passes than any other player on the team, completing 94 of 98 passes in the match against Italy. He also makes a huge defensive contribution, as one of the top tacklers in the Swiss squad.

Xhaka's performances during the tournament are the latest highlight of a highly successful season.

Following his move to Bayer Leverkusen last summer, Xhaka quickly became a mainstay in a team that broke a string of records on its way to an unprecedented unbeaten domestic campaign. 

The crowning glory came at the German cup final in Berlin, where Xhaka's long-range strike proved to be the winning goal against Kaiserslautern, completing a Bundesliga and DFB Cup double for Leverkusen.

Xhaka's Switzerland teammates are in no doubt of his pivotal role in the team's success at the Euros.

"He has a massive influence on our performances," defender Leonidas Stergiou told DW. "I think you can see how important he is to our game, and that he's an absolute leader and captain."

Goal scorer Ruben Vargas explained it was Xhaka who pushed him to take on the audacious shot that put Switzerland 2-0 in the second half to send holders Italy crashing out of the tournament.

"Just before kick-off, Granit told me 'please, score a goal.' Literally one minute later I got the ball, and I heard Granit tell me to shoot, so I did," Vargas added.

Underappreciated for putting in the hard yards

Yet for much of his career, Xhaka's qualities have not necessarily been appreciated. In fact at his lowest point, in late 2019, he was almost hounded out of England by Arsenal fans, who had come to see their then-captain as the personification of the club's decline over the previous years. 

At each of his clubs, Xhaka has been a willing runner, tough tackler and reliable passer. He has always been keen to take on leadership roles, and often spoken frankly about his and his teams' failings. These attributes usually combine to make a fan favorite out of a player. 

Florian Wirtz (left) battles for the ball against Granit Xhaka (right) with both players looking down towards the ball
Granit Xhaka impressed in the group stage match against hosts GermanyImage: Federico Gambarini/dpa/picture-alliance

But spectators and pundits were often more concerned with his weaknesses than his strengths. Neither quick nor especially tall, he has not offered the raw physical traits that can inspire fans.

As an all-rounder rather than a specialist, he rarely produced the kind of moments to go viral on social media, and much of his best work has been overlooked by casual viewers.

His goalscoring record has also been modest for much of his career. Perhaps most importantly though, he has often been characterized as a loose cannon, susceptible to a rush of blood to the head.

Reputation tarnished by early career red cards

A reputation for being reckless is not unjustified. Xhaka has received 12 red cards in his career, including three within a 13-game spell in 2015, during his final season at Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Two more dismissals in the following campaign, his first with Arsenal in the Premier League, cemented the perception of a player who was prone to recklessness. 

He had become something of a paradox; a responsible figure beset by rashness. Successful, experienced coaches like Arsène Wenger, Lucien Favre and Unai Emery loved him, in large part due to his character. But fans were regularly left exasperated by moments of madness. 

Even with the national team, with whom he has been a more consistent performer, Xhaka has not received universal affection. Former Switzerland defender Stephane Henchoz criticized the decision to make him captain, due to his Kosovan heritage. 

"I think a captain must represent Switzerland and the team, Xhaka doesn't. The Swiss players without a migration background and Swiss fans, they would feel marginalized," Henchoz said in 2018.

However, Xhaka is now the undisputed leader of a multicultural Switzerland side. The 31-year-old's experience seems to have helped him mature and leave his demons behind, while powering him to the best football of his career.

In his first year at Leverkusen, Xhaka won two trophies and reached a European final and now he's the fulcrum of a team making a serious bid to become European champions.

It has been a long road to acknowledgement for Xhaka, but he has now firmly proved his critics wrong. If Switzerland triumph over England in Düsseldorf, with their captain coming to the fore once again, the Ballon d'Or shouts may not sound like jokes anymore.

Edited by: Kalika Mehta