England’s Jack Wilshere insecurity surfaces again after performance in Ukraine

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England’s obsession with Jack Wilshere’s born from his singularity. At least, his singularity in England. The Three Lions have produced their Steven Gerrards and Frank Lampards, but Jack Wilshere’s supposed to be something more akin to somebody you’d see at Barcelona, which is why Pep Guardiola’s 2011 assessment continues to be brought up.

The then Barcelona boss, complimentary of the Arsenal talent’s skill, also put England’s Wilshere awe in perspective:

“Wilshere is a top player. He is an excellent player, not just Arsenal, but also for the national team. [But] he is lucky because we have many players in the second team like him but he plays because there is no pressure at his club to win titles.”

That Guardiola was responding to a question from English media about the then 19-year-old’s quality also speaks to the obsession. English soccer identity isn’t going to live or die with his success, but their culture will sure feel better about itself if Wilshere lives provides a return on their emotional investment.

Knowing that helps explain why Wilshere’s health is always headline news, as it is today. One day after England’s “awful” performance in a 0-0 World Cup Qualifying draw at Ukraine (Gary Lineker’s words), Roy Hodgson was forced to make excuses for his young midfielder, explaining that fitness played a part in Wilshere’s performance.

Wilshere started but was brought off in the second half. Whereas he would normally be expected to be among England’s most prolific and accurate passers, the Arsenal midfielder completed only 16 of his 24 attempts. His three turnovers where the most on his team.

From The Telegraph, in an article headlined “England manager Roy Hodgson defends Jack Wilshere form against Ukraine, saying: ‘he’s still not 100 per cent'” the led the paper’s online sports section:

“Jack is still looking for full fitness,” said Hodgson. “That is why we took him off in the second-half.

“We certainly saw a much more effective Jack against Moldova, but he still did his work against Ukraine and, tactically, did all the things I asked of him.”

Against Moldova last Friday, a 4-0 win at home, it’s all good. Wilshere’s fine. The team looks good. Four days later, the team’s in Ukraine playing a much more difficult opponent, and Wilshere’s now completely fit. At least, that’s what gets discussed in public when we need to explain why Wilshere isn’t performing like the English Andres Iniesta.

source: Getty Images
Jack Wilshere missed the 2011-12 Premier League season with an ankle injury but returned to make 25 appearances in 2012-13. Despite one goal and nine assists in 65 career Premier League appearances, Wilshere remains the subject of much hope and attention in England.

If Hodgson says so, we should take him at his word. Wilshere is almost certainly not 100 percent. At the same time, is Wilshere not allowed to merely have a bad game? If her was fit enough to start against both Moldova and Ukraine, to what extent should fitness be used as an excuse? Isn’t it better to say that Wilshere, though not fully fit, is capable of playing better, yet against Ukraine, he merely had a bad game? Or is he not permitted the same ups and downs as a normal player?

Consider some other headlines around England on Wednesday. One calling for Hodgson to get more out of his midfield is fair, though it may be reading too much into one match’s result. Another said Wilshere’s not ready for international soccer, something I’m assuming wasn’t evident on Friday, while England were winning. Another sees Wilshere as fighting to fulfill his promise, which is curious pessimism coming from the same optimists that created this tension.

The whole conversation is absurd, particularly considering Wilshere’s only 21 years old. He has plenty of time to develop into a legitimate star, but given the undo hype around him, there’s a paranoia that surrounds every Wilshere performance. His apparent brittle physical state doesn’t help (playing only 25 games over the previous two seasons), but the underlying causes remain the same. Wilshere is a very good player but overhyped, leading to these insanely paranoid conversations about his form whenever he doesn’t meet England’s potentially unreachable expectations.

As Guardiola said two years ago, there were players in Barcelona’s second team that rivaled Wilshere. That’s not a bad thing. One of those players (Thiago Alcantara) was bought by Bayern Munich for $33.2 million this summer. It’s not as if Guardiola was dismissing his talent. Yet that’s the quote many choose to remember, a choice made from a viewpoint that also worries about a down game in Ukraine and whether Wilshere will be the English Iniesta when he may “only” be Alcantara.

These are the type of narratives that get written by uncertain. Sometimes that’s labeled insecurity.  Chips on shoulders are also discussed. It’s why U.S. fans latched on to Freddy Adu and are constantly searching for their first soccer superstar. It’s why Barry Bannan was briefly hailed by Scotland, and why so much hope was tied into Aaron Ramsey in Wales. It’s also why you don’t hear these stories from places like Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and Germany.

A lot of countries need a Jack Wilshere. They’re waiting for somebody to live up to the hype. But that doesn’t mean the hype’s fair. And that doesn’t mean conversations centered around one sub-par performance are completely rational.

UEFA playoff draw sets up intriguing battles

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The fight for the final four 2018 World Cup spots from UEFA is well and truly on.

On Tuesday in Zurich, Switzerland the draw for the two-legged playoffs was made as the eight best runners up from the UEFA qualifying group stages found out their fate.

[ MORE: Latest World Cup rankings released ]

The Republic of Ireland will face Denmark over two games, while Northern Ireland face Switzerland and two monster clashes have been set up as Sweden and Italy will lock horns and Croatia and Greece will do battle.

A spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer is the prize for the four winners of these home and away playoffs.

The Republic of Ireland seem to have got the better draw, especially as they will play at home in the second leg in Dublin. Northern Ireland will also be okay with having Switzerland but are slightly hampered by playing the first leg in Belfast. Italy against Sweden will be a tight game and one neither nation will relish, and the same can be said for Croatia vs. Greece with their intense local rivalry.

First leg matches will take place on November 9-11, while the second leg will take place on November 12-14.

Below is the full schedule for the two playoff games.


UEFA playoff schedule

First leg

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy

Second leg

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland
Greece vs. Croatia
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Sweden

Watch Live: England, Mexico, Spain, France in U-17 World Cup action

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It is a busy day at the U-17 World Cup in India as four Round of 16 games take place.

[ LIVE: Stream U-17 World Cup ] 

Red-hot England play Japan, while France and Spain collide and Mexico clash with a very impressive Iran side who won all of their group games. Mali and Iraq complete the Round of 16 games on Tuesday.

The winners of the England v. Japan game will face the U.S. on Saturday after they blew away Paraguay 5-0 on Monday.

Below is the full schedule for Tuesday’s four games, while you can click on the link above to watch all four games live.

Tuesday’s U-17 World Cup Round of 16 games

Iran vs. Mexico – 7:30 a.m. ET
France vs. Spain – 7:30 a.m. ET
England vs. Japan – 10:30 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Iraq – 10:30 a.m. ET

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

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ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

[ MORE: USA U-17s top Paraguay in convincing style ]

Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

[ MORE: Mike Ashley puts Newcastle up for sale ]

Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.