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Riola Xhemaili: Switzerland's teenage Euros star who grew up idolising Ronaldo

09:00 BST 17/07/2022
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When Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, Barcelona’s two-time European champion, sat down with Switzerland team-mate Riola Xhemaili ahead of the Women’s Euros, UEFA asked her to describe what it feels like to win big titles to the 19-year-old. “Haven’t you already won something?” Crnogorcevic asked. “Not yet,” she said.

“It will come,” Crnogorcevic replied. “Don’t worry.”

It is easy for the Barca star to be so confident, as the talent her teenage team-mate possesses is truly something special.

Xhemaili is at her first major tournament this summer as the youngest member of the Swiss squad, a feat which comes after her first season in one of Europe’s top leagues, the Frauen-Bundesliga, with Freiburg.

What is most remarkable, then, given the huge 12 months she has had at such a young age, is it was only eight years ago that Xhemaili started playing football for a team.

It didn’t take long for her switch from volleyball to pay off. At the age of 15, she made her debut for Basel and was playing in the Switzerland youth teams. In the latter half of the following year, she would wear the captain’s armband for her club and make her senior international debut.

“I am a personality who can deal well with the pressure of expectations,” Xhemaili, who cites Cristiano Ronaldo as her biggest idol, said back in 2020 as her stock was on the rise. It’s part of the reason why she’s been able to hit so many milestones so quickly.

It was before those headline-grabbing exploits that Birgit Bauer, head of the women's and girls' football department at SC Freiburg, first saw her play, in a game between two junior teams of Freiburg and Basel. From there, she knew she had to sign her.

“Riola is extremely secure on the ball,” Bauer tells GOAL, recalling the traits that stood out to her that day. “She's a really good technician. She also has a very good eye - she can read the game well.”

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Xhemaili would be 18 when she moved to Germany. Joining a club renowned for its work with young players – playing a huge role in the careers of stars like Giulia Gwinn and Klara Buhl – feels like the perfect step for her.

“Coming to Germany from Switzerland is not that easy,” Bauer says. “The Bundesliga has a different quality. This was also noticed in Rio. She had initial difficulties, but always gave everything. She has become very valuable for our game.”

The stats back that up. By the end of the campaign, Xhemaili had six assists, the most of any Freiburg player, and had scored her first goal in the division. She had also become a fixture in Switzerland’s starting XI.

“Sometimes you have to discipline her a little bit, but it’s nice,” laughs Coumba Sow, the scorer of Switzerland’s first goal at the Euros, when asked what it’s like to play with the teenager in midfield. “She’s tricky in her mind.”

La Nati go into their final group game at the Women’s Euros, against reigning champions the Netherlands, with a point on the board and in need of a win to progress. Xhemaili will be hoping to make her competition debut in the high-stakes encounter.

Whether she gets on the pitch or not, though, the experience she is getting in England will be incredibly beneficial when she returns to Germany to complete just her second season outside of her home country.

There, Xhemaili has a new coach, Theresa Merk, who cannot wait to work with her. Merk joins Freiburg after spending a year in Switzerland hearing all about the midfielder’s abilities, while also having the chance to see her train and play with the national team, too.

“Riola is a quite technical player who has her biggest strengths in the offensive game,” Merk says, describing her first impressions of the 19-year-old to GOAL. “She is able to create dangerous situations for herself around the box but also by playing creative passes to her team-mates so they are able to score.

“There is always a need for creative and offensive midfielders who always want to have the ball and know what to do with it. We want to play that kind of football so it covers a lot of her strengths.”

Merk talks about that ability on the ball again when asked what makes her most look forward to working with the teenager, before adding: “It is also exciting how open she is to learn new things and cope with a new system and style of play.”

But there is another quality of Xhemaili’s that must be noted too, which Bauer believes also makes her “important”. “She is never in a bad mood,” she explains. “She’s always in a good mood and spreads this good mood.”

From being a teenage captain at Basel to one of Switzerland’s most exciting young prospects, with all those traits combined, it’s no wonder Xhemaili has become a valuable member of each team she has played in so far – and will no doubt continue to be as this promising career unfolds.

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