It often seems as if, whenever a professional footballer opens his mouth in public, there is one phrase, varyingly attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and others, that springs immediately to mind: it is better to remain silent and be considered a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove any doubt. This week’s outrage du jour concerns the Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere, who has had a busy few days, first being caught smoking a cigarette outside a nightclub in London and then offering his opinions on who should and who shouldn’t be allowed to play for the England national team. Since there’s an England match at the end of this week, a predictable mass hysteria has descended upon a player who has previously been reasonably well protected from the worst excesses of the media, but this week Wilshere has likely learnt a couple of harsh lessons about the nature of the glare of the media spotlight.
Getting caught en fumant might be looked upon as a youthful mistake, as might the compoundment of this mortal sin by apparently fibbing about what was going on at the time. In our current climate with regard to smoking, Wilshere might scarcely have been more greatly castigated had he been photographed with underage prostitute sitting on his knee whilst holding a crack pipe in his hand, but this is neither here nor there. There is no doubt that smoking is, in a bewildering number of ways, bad for one’s health and fitness, and it is to be hoped that this will prove to be a lesson learned the hard way. After all, in the frighteningly-paced world of twenty-first century Premier League football, every last gasp of energy might make a difference between success and failure and it would be a great shame if a player of his ability lost so much an iota of his edge to the dubious pleasure of tugging on a Benson & Hedges.
On the other matter, concerning whether the Manchester United player Adnan Januzaj should be permitted to play for England once has has held residency of this country for five years or not, an ever bigger storm has blown up. It was curious to see The Guardian article about him place the phrase ‘England For The English’ in inverted commas, since this implies a direct quote to that effect from Wilshere, yet the phrase appears nowhere in the article itself. Indeed, such a phrase carries an inference that reaches far beyond the matter being discussed, and Wilshere may well already have found that this phrase may have granted him the sort of admirers that few would want agreeing with them. He is, however, young and should be granted the opportunity to learn to from mistakes. Should he choose to not do so, of course, it may prove to be a different matter.
On the matter hand, there seems little doubt that players born outside England – or, indeed, any country – should be allowed to play football for the nation into which they have been naturalised. The English cricket and rugby teams see to have little issue with this, and the football team would in the past have been robbed of the talents of the likes of John Barnes and Cyrille Regis had this ever been considered of much importance before. The matter of naturalised adults, however, is a slightly different matter. Perhaps Adnan Januzaj loves his adopted home, ears roast beef every Sunday and thinks that Britain should pull of the European Union for reasons that he doesn’t quite understand. It seems more likely, however, that he joined Manchester United because they’re one of the biggest football clubs on the planet and that this consideration, with everything that comes with it, trumps any ideas of national identity that anybody could care to think of. Indeed, it wouldn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that Januzaj could be forgiven for wanting little to do with a decidedly average national football team, or that he is a proud Kosovan who wishes to represent the country of his birth.
What should probably be troubling is the idea of so shamelessly courting an eighteen year old player in this respect when he has barely played a game and a third – albeit a very impressive game and a half – of Premier League football. What this says about the development of young English players could hardly be less flattering. Why, one might argue, should the Football Association waste all that money on St Georges Park when they could instead send FA observers across Europe with a butterfly net to pick up talented looking twelve year olds and sweep them back to London with promises of Premier League football and highly lucrative sponsorship deals? After all, the governing body may well consider, that’s little short of what clubs do. Perhaps the only sensible and tactful attitude towards this is to allow Januzaj to make his own decision in his own time. This may run contrary to the instant gratification culture of modern football, but several threads of the current debate over this player’s future seem a little, well, unseemly, to say the least.
Jack Wilshere, meanwhile, will have to deal with what he has to deal with as a result of his comments on this subject earlier this week, and if some of the reaction to these comments makes him think that much harder about what the nature of what being English does or doesn’t, should or shouldn’t mean, then perhaps something positive might come from his likely wanted moment in the sun. Ultimately, though, perhaps everyone engaging in speculation over what he did or didn’t mean when talking to the press earlier this week should consider the fact that this player is twenty-one years old, and that wisdom from words should probably be one of the last things that we expect from him. To err is human, and to err as a twenty-one year old – especially as a twenty-one year old professional footballer – is commonplace. If he isn’t given the opportunity to learn from these errors of judgement by those currently jeering from the sidelines, he may never do so.
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