In praise of Stephan Lichtsteiner: the thinking man’s shithouse

The final game of Group E of the 2018 World Cup, in which Switzerland played Serbia for a place in the knock-out stages, was defined in its build up by the political concerns of two of Switzerland’s players. Both Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri have family ties to Albania, their parents having fled the war in the Balkans in the 1990s. There is little love lost between the two Swiss players and the nation of Serbia.

In the dying minutes the game was level at 1-1. Shaqiri is played through and finds himself in a foot race with Duško Tošić which the Swiss-Albanian, fuelled by the emotional disturbance of a displaced youth, just clinches. He flicks the ball past the onrushing Serbian goalkeeper, Vladimir Stojković, and leaves the Serbian duo in a mangled heap in the six-yard box as the ball trickles into the net. Shaqiri can be seen reeling away, with more hate than joy, removing his shirt to display a torso reminiscent of a cow shown in the preamble to a Greenpeace video depicting the horrors of the dairy industry. Granit Xhaka – the son of an imprisoned political dissident – follows soon after, flapping his crossed hands zealously in the form of the Albanian double eagle. The rest of the Swiss national team then gather around their team mates, embracing the chaos of the last-minute victory. One time Sunderland left-sided utility player and current BBC2 colour commentator Kevin Kilbane is able to offer little to this revenge fantasy that had its makings in the death of Marshal Tito and the war crime ridden disintegration of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

A subtle detail of this scene, with all of its hectic excitement, could easily be missed by the layman. The casual viewer and the ardent supporter share a common apathy towards the game’s peripheral delights. These are the pleasures for that specific intersection of footballing obsessive and instant neutral. There is no more prodigious producer of this kind of subplot than the hero of this story, and in many respects a hero for life in general: Stephan Lichtsteiner.

Arriving late to the celebrations, but inevitably, marvellously there, appears the contorted face of the Swiss full-back / wide midfielder / wind-up merchant, a Modigliani of paleness and strange proportions, beating his eagle crossed hands even more feverishly than either of his Swiss-Albanian teammates. A quick glance at Lichtsteiner’s Wikipedia page will tell you that this is a man born in a town which is more-or-less the geographic centre of Switzerland, a man who is seemingly the only elite level footballer to have actually interned at Credit Suisse, and more crucially, a man with no apparent ancestral connection to the people of Albania.

This moment is the epitome of a career defined by its talent for mutable antipathy: where Zidane could create space from nothing, Lichtsteiner is able to create hostility.

But these facts are mere trifles to Lichtsteiner, the possessor of a unique imagination for conflict. We find him here so caught up in the furious ecstasy of the goal, that he abrogates any Swiss inclination for neutrality, instead choosing to embed himself into the hatred of a decades old sectarian conflict like some sort of rabid accountant appearing half way through Titus Andronicus. The Swiss team’s celebrations calm a little, but Lichtsteiner has by this point begun singling out individual members of the crowd with whom he has conceived age old family feuds. He doesn’t even join the rest of his team, finally walking away, nodding his head heavily, happy to have some closure to an elaborate revenge narrative that can only be of his own extremely recent concoction.

This moment is the epitome of a career defined by its talent for mutable antipathy: where Zidane could create space from nothing, Lichtsteiner is able to create hostility. In as much as you might liberally consider a football game one protracted disagreement, at 35 years of age Lichtsteiner remains a truly world class player. He is the thinking man’s scumbag: a connoisseur of shithousing who exists in a permanent state of wonderfully animated indignation, a man who has managed to craft into an esoteric art form the ability to nearly get a second booking seemingly dozens of times in a single game.

Lichtsteiner’s one season at Arsenal has seen him maligned by Arsenal fans for the decline in his ability at what he no doubt considers the more fringe aspects of the game: technique, athleticism and defensive positional awareness. And yet, with Emery’s first season now over and with the placid decorum of the late Wenger era seeping back into away fixtures, this is one Arsenal fan who will miss a player whose contract has not been renewed. In answer to the age-old question, ‘yes, but could he do it on a rainy Tuesday night in Stoke?’, often levelled at the game’s great continental players, the answer in Lichtsteiner’s case is yes, and probably having researched the entire history of Port Vale Football Club in case of any last-minute celebrations.