Alexander Frei has often been a controversial figure but there is no argument about his ability. The 33-year-old announced on Thursday that he will hang up his boots next summer and in Switzerland fans know they may not see his like again for some time.
It was generally known that Frei's four-year contract at FC Basel 1893 would expire next June, and that he was featuring less prominently in the first team since the arrival of new coach Murat Yakin, but his decision to retire came as a shock to many. Most thought his deal would be extended or that he would look for another club in 2013.
Former Switzerland midfielder Roger Wehrli said: "I'm speechless. It's an absolute shock. I was sure he would carry on playing for at least another season." Ex-Basel assistant coach Marco Schällibaum added: "He was always in great shape physically. He could still play another two seasons, for sure." VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach's Swiss national team midfielder Granit Xhaka was amazed too. "It just seems a little too early for me and that's upsetting," said the 20-year-old.
However, as unpredictable as his choice was, it was typical Frei. The forward has always been eager to maintain his independence and to be in charge of his own career. Hardly surprising, then, that he explained his retirement with the words: "I always wanted to make my own decision about when I would give up."
Doing it his way has been what Frei has done best. His 42 goals in 84 games for Switzerland is a national record, as are his appearances at four major international tournaments – two FIFA World Cups and two UEFA European Championships. He shone abroad at club level for Stade Rennais FC and Borussia Dortmund too, so much so that Wehrli concluded: "Along with Stéphane Chapuisat, Frei is the best striker Switzerland have ever had."
His former coaches rate him no less highly. Jürgen Klopp, his boss at Dortmund, said: "Alex was a great guy, both professionally and in private." Thorsten Fink, his coach at Basel from 2009–11, called Frei "one of my favourite players – a great striker who knows where the goal is" although the current Hamburger SV manager added: "Alex was often in trouble because he voiced his opinion. It was something that didn't suit everyone."
That outspoken nature is part of the Frei mythology. Occasionally aggressive but also sensitive, he was regularly nettled by a lack of positive coverage in the Swiss press and quit international football in 2011 after being booed off the pitch in a couple of home games. It was not the way it should have ended, yet Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld could not praise Frei enough: "He performed superbly for the Swiss – 42 goals is fantastic. It would be fitting if he stayed in football as either a coach or a director."
Whether that will happen is ultimately down to Frei. "What I do next is something I will decide," he said with customary defiance. "First, I want to make sure I am firing on all cylinders right until the end."
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