Shaqiri World Cup 2022Getty

Messi, Ronaldo &... Shaqiri? Switzerland's ageless hero showing no signs of slowing down

Only three men have scored in the group stages at each of the last three World Cups, and you can probably guess two of them. They're arguably the greatest of all time, of course: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Two icons, two titans.

The third man? Certainly no icon and no titan. His accolades come nowhere close to Messi nor Ronaldo, although he certainly still has a few.

But it's time to give Xherdan Shaqiri his flowers. It's time to recognise him as a true big-game player that has a knack for helping Switzerland go toe-to-toe with the very best. Even at 31, even at his fourth World Cup, Shaqiri has been as important as ever in helping Switzerland advance through the tournament.

Article continues below

And he'll get another chance to do exactly that on Tuesday when he leads his country into their last-16 clash with the aforementioned Ronaldo and Portugal.

Shaqiri and Switzerland are underdogs and, to be honest, they usually are. Both the player and the team are often overlooked, always taking the backseat to those around them despite their obvious strength. That's fine for Shaqiri, though. He likes it that way.

"The key is to have a special performance from the whole team," he said ahead of the game. "There are no Cristianos in our team, we need to have the whole team to be successful. If everyone sticks together, everyone goes to their highest level of performance, I am sure we have a chance to go through."

Shaqiri is right: he is no Cristiano. In terms of statistics, trophies, Instagram followers, none of it. Ronaldo is an icon of the game and, while Shaqiri is a multiple-time Champions League winner, he's simply in a different category.

Shaqiri GFXGetty/GOAL

But what the two do have in common is how important they are for their countries. Both have been doing this for a long, long time.

Shaqiri has been starring for the Swiss for over a decade. This World Cup in Qatar is his fourth, and it's safe to say he's made quite an impact on this tournament over the years.

He has five World Cup goals to his name, putting him level with some of the greats. Romario, Zinedine Zidane, Garrincha, Raul, Geoff Hurst, Michel Platini... pretty good company to be in.

His first three came in a hat-trick against Honduras back in 2014 after featuring just once off the bench four years prior. That hat trick is one of just 51 in World Cup history, and it helped fire Switzerland to the knockout rounds.

"The hat-trick, this ball from 2014 I have still at home," Shaqiri admitted before the tournament. "It's an amazing memory that I'll never forget.”

In 2018, Shaqiri once again took centrestage by scoring in a politically-charged clash with Serbia. We all know what happened: a famous goal, an eagle celebration, a geopolitical discourse. Shaqiri was at the heart of it all, of course, as he often is with Switzerland.

So who else could have scored the opener of Switzerland's rematch with Serbia this year in Qatar? Of course, it was Shaqiri, although the more-mature 31-year-old didn't spark chaos with his goal celebration this time around, even if the chaos did inevitably occur later on.

His performance in Qatar has been just that: mature. He featured twice in the group stages, scoring against Serbia while teeing Breel Embolo up for the winner in the opener against Cameroon. He was rested for Switzerland's match against Brazil, which they coincidentally lost.

Now, Switzerland are looking towards the last 16 for a fifth successive major tournament. There, he'll meet Ronaldo, one of the few players left in this competition that can go toe-to-toe with him when it comes to World Cup goals.

"We know how to beat them," Shaqiri proclaimed, referencing June's 1-0 win over Fernando Santos' side. "This will be a completely different game. There is much more pressure for both sides, and whoever loses will go home. This will make the game much more exciting.

"Portugal are favourites, but we saw the example of Argentina [against Australia] that everyone expected they had an easy game and they had a lot of difficulties. Just as Australia posed problems to Argentina, with a special game on our part, we can pose a lot of problems to Portugal."

They have the players to do just that. Despite being underdogs, Switzerland have plenty of talent.

There's Granit Xhaka, the fiery Arsenal star that's always turning games on their head. There's Embolo, the Monaco striker that is a handful for any backline. Yann Sommer is a fantastic goalkeeper, and that's just to name a few of the players playing in top European leagues.

Ironically, though, it may be a player that's left Europe behind that could be key to defeating Ronaldo and co. as the Portuguese star reportedly nears his own move away from the continent.

Having won everything there is to win in Europe, Shaqiri moved to MLS to join the Chicago Fire after a difficult spell with Lyon in France. Despite a tough season for the Fire, Shaqiri still shone, leading the team in goal contributions with seven goals and 11 assists in his debut season

Shaqiri's form in MLS showed that this may not, in fact, be his swansong. Win or lose against Portugal, Shaqiri may have another major tournament or two left in him.

Tuesday night could be his biggest moment, yet, though. He's already faced off with Messi on this stage, falling to the Argentine in 2014. In 2018, it was a stunning last-gasp loss to Sweden that kept Switzerland from the quarter-finals.

He'll have Ronaldo and Portugal standing in his way, but is this the year that Shaqiri and Switzerland finally get over the hump? Can the Swiss be the ones to spoil what could be Ronaldo's final World Cup?

They'll hope so and, with Shaqiri leading the charge, they might just have the matchwinner capable of making it happen.