England's Wilshere speaks during a news conference at the St George's Park training complex near Burton upon Trent

Jack Wilshere, Kevin Pietersen, and national identity: Some issues just aren’t in an athlete’s domain


Like the rest of the athletic world, professional soccer’s culture remains one rife with latent sexism and homophobia. The casual language of this male-dominated world persists with identifying weakness as a feminine quality (don’t be such a girl/women/[worse]). Casually, jokingly questioning another’s heterosexuality is still done for comedic effect. Soccer remains a reflection of a maturing society, one where the Robbie Rogers and Megan Rapinoes of the world are only now starting to influence people’s opinions. Though there are a lot of intelligent people in the game, the game itself is not a breeding ground for enlightened social thought.

In that context, it shouldn’t be surprising that one athlete’s view on an equally complex topic lacks nuance. Jack Wilshere’s view of national identity apparently does. England is for English players — a clumsily opined response to Adnan Januzaj’s status — but in a country with a long history of immigration (and a liberal attitude toward political refugees), it’s unclear what that definition means. Do you need to be born in England? What about the broader United Kingdom? Or is there an age threshold past which you can no longer be English? What’s necessary and what’s sufficient to make an English person English?

(If you’re unfamiliar with the Adnan Januzaj situation, the link below should help you:)

[MORE Jack Wilshere sparks debate: Should Adnan Januzaj be allowed to play for England?]

It’s difficult to blame Wilshere for his lack of nuance because there’s really no right answer to this question. Much more learned people than Wilshere (or myself) are still debating the issue, making professional footballers (and obscure bloggers) strange points of reference. In a world where globalization’s forcing us to reconsider identity — where so many political  refugees without any sense of nationalism are left seeking new countries to call home — who cares what the Jack Wilsheres of the world have to say?

Right now, one country’s loophole is another’s open door. Even within the same nation, the standards change; sometimes, conveniently so.

Take England’s cricket team, which has taken the open door approach, something that’s helped fuel their rise to second in the International Cricket Council’s Test ranking. Among the 34 players the team’s used in the last year, 13 of them were born outside of England. Eight are form South Africa, with Barbabos, Ireland, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and Zimbabwe each contributing one player to the squad.

That diversity may explain why one of the South Africa cricketers, South African-born Kevin Pietersen (no stranger to his own controversy), took to Twitter to question Wilshere’s stance:

[tweet https://twitter.com/KP24/status/387964147277004801] [tweet https://twitter.com/KP24/status/387968707919888384] [tweet https://twitter.com/JackWilshere/status/387969259172671488]

Wilshere ended his day with a few attempted clarifications:

[tweet https://twitter.com/JackWilshere/status/388035564223873025] [tweet https://twitter.com/JackWilshere/status/388036249367617536] [tweet https://twitter.com/JackWilshere/status/388036996310269952] [tweet https://twitter.com/JackWilshere/status/388037312674025472]

[MORE: Jack Wilshere denies singling out Adnan Januzaj, insists ‘Engand should be pick English players’]

Wilshere’s third tweet of the sequence helps narrow down his view, but the most telling tweet of the exchange my have been Pietersen’s first response to Wilshere. From a man who moved to England as a 17-year-old (making his international debut at 24), the sentiment revealed the emotion many immigrants feel. How is Jack Wilshere to say whether Pietersen’s English or not? And how can any person tell someone without a national identity that they can never truly be a part of their adopted country?

At this point, much of the English sporting public have accepted what’s happened with the cricket team. Perhaps that’s a result of the squad’s success, but it may also reflect a more globalized view of what nationalism can be. Given Pietersen was actually one year older than Januzaj when the two came to England (Januzaj came to train at Manchester United at 16), Wilshere’s view looks even more precarious. Broader, national standards run contrary to the English midfielder’s stance.

England cricket star Kevin Pietersen is in his 10th year as an England international, holding records for fastest English century and fastest batsman to reach 1,000 and 2,000. On Wednesday on Twitter, the South Africa-born batsman question Jack Wilshere’s views on English identity.

There are two important differences between Pietersen and Januzaj, though. First, Pietersen has and English mother, something that made him immediately eligible for the national team. Januzaj was born in Belgium, is Albanian by ethnicity, is eligible to play for Serbia and, if Kosovo were every recognized by FIFA, would have a fourth country from which to choose. Without an English parent, his England claim would be based on residency alone.

All of which brings us back to identity. On a personal level, Januzaj may not feel Albanian, Belgian, Kosovar or Serbian, and having spent the most important years of his life in England, perhaps he would develop a national identity by the time he’s 22 – when he would be eligible to play for the Three Lions. Just as Pietersen felt more English in the face of South Africa’s politics, Januzaj by see himself as English for his own, personal reasons.

Contrary to what Wilshere implies in one of his tweets, the second major difference between Pietersen and Januzaj shouldn’t matter. That a person’s a footballer, not a cricketer, should be irrelevant. We may not yet know exactly how to define a person’s identity, but it certainly can’t be dependent on whether you play one sport instead of another. Let it come down to personal preference if need be (something that admittedly leaves potential to be abused for sporting reasons), but certainly don’t let sport decide who are you and who you are not.

When it comes to national identity, I don’t have the answers. Clearly, neither does Jack Wilshere. And nobody expects him to have them. So within reason, why do we care what he has to contribute to the conversation? Perhaps he has surprisingly enlightened things to say on other topics, at which time we can talk about them, but this clearly isn’t one of them. Is anybody’s view on English identity going to be influenced by what Jack Wilshere had to offer?

Let’s hope not. And let’s also hope that, in time, we can agree: Athletes may not be the best source for nuanced social commentary. There will always be except to that rule, but we need to get away from any standard that assumes an athlete’s view on such a complex issue is worth this level of consideration.

There are a lot of smart people in the world who may be able to identify what being English really means. Jack Wilshere’s not one of them. And nobody should have expected him to be.

Conte: My Chelsea will never play for a draw, home or away

HULL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 01:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea reacts to his team scoring during the Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KCOM Stadium on October 1, 2016 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte knows what he’s doing — he’s playing the game made popular the world over by his predecessor and Sunday opponent, Jose Mourinho, and so many others who went before him.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Where other managers shy away from the controversy and the spotlight brought upon themselves by the psychological warfare waged by so many of the giants of the managerial profession, Conte has embraced the added attention he’ll now face when Chelsea host Manchester United on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

While Mourinho hasn’t been quiet in the build-up to his return to Stamford Bridge — how could he, given the considerable demand for comment? — he has mostly kept the cheap shots to himself and attempted to treat the affair like any other. Of course, it’s not that for him; for the Chelsea fans; for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who made the decision to fire Mourinho 10 months ago; and now, for Conte, who’s suddenly thrust onto the other side of the battlefield ahead of Mourinho’s grudge match — quotes from Goal.com:

“No, I think it is always right to play for a win. I try to transfer these thoughts to my players always. If you play at home or away, it must be the same.

“You must start the game with only one target: to win. Not to play for a draw. I don’t like this. It is not football. I don’t like this.”

“I think it is important to win, but for me also, it is important to win in the right way. Because, sometimes, it happened to me. I won in the past with other clubs, but I wasn’t satisfied with the performance.

“When you win is important, but it is important to also play good football, to play with a good intensity, to show always the will to win, the passion. For me, that’s important.”

The obvious inference here is that Mourinho’s teams have always been set out to play in a defensive manner — often times aiming for, or, at the very least, achieving 0-0 draws — something the Portuguese did earlier this week, away to Liverpool.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

Conte didn’t ask to be the anti-Mourinho when he was named Chelsea’s new boss — not directly so, at least — but it comes as part of the territory when taking over from a mountain of a manager like Mourinho. Cool as ever, Conte is relishing his new role.

Introducing Zabivaka, Russia’s 2018 World Cup mascot

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: Official Mascot Wolf was chosen as Official Mascot of FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia and Nazario Ronaldo during 'Vecherniy Urgant' (Evening Urgant) TV show on Channel 1 at Ostankino on October 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
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MOSCOW (AP) Russia has chosen a cocky wolf wearing sporty goggles as the mascot for the 2018 football World Cup.

The wolf was chosen in online voting over two other mascot candidates — a cat and a tiger wearing a space suit.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

The announcement was made early Saturday at the end of an hour-long broadcast on state Channel One television. More than 1 million Russians voted in the contest, according to the broadcast.

World Cup matches are to take place in 11 cities in June and July 2018. The venues are in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Kazan, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, Saransk, Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod and Yekaterinburg.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: (L-R) Wolf, the winer of FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia Official Mascot, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Vitaly Mutko, TV host Ivan Urgant and Nazario Ronaldo attend at 'Vecherniy (Evening) Urgant' TV show on Channel 1 during at Ostankino on October 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
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Aguero looking vulnerable as Man City evolves under Guardiola

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 15:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City shows dejection after the final whistle during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Everton at Etihad Stadium on October 15, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Manchester City’s spine of goalkeeper Joe Hart, center back Vincent Kompany, midfielder Yaya Toure and striker Sergio Aguero has anchored the team since 2011 in the most decorated period in its history.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

One by one, it is being dismantled by Pep Guardiola.

Hart has been sent out on loan to Italy.

The injury-hampered Kompany no longer appears first choice.

Toure has been ostracized.

And the seemingly unthinkable is happening: Aguero is coming under pressure for his place.

Aguero started on the bench for the English Premier League game against Everton on Saturday after playing two matches for Argentina during the international break. More surprisingly, he stayed among the substitutes for the Champions League match at Barcelona on Wednesday, when Guardiola preferred to play midfielder Kevin De Bruyne up front.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

Aguero has been untouchable, a guaranteed starter since joining from Atletico Madrid in July 2011. Suddenly, possibly the most popular player among City fans – and a scorer of 102 league goals in his first five seasons at the club – is vulnerable and seemingly dispensable, even if he is likely to regain his place for the Premier League match against Southampton on Sunday.

When asked if Aguero was being phased out, Guardiola said on Friday the player’s future was at City.

“When Sergio decides to leave Manchester City, it will be his decision,” Guardiola said. Then, echoing comments he made about Hart in August before allowing him to leave, Guardiola added: “I appreciate him (as) a football player. I appreciate (as) a man what he did here.”

It’s not just the recent selection decisions that hint at a sense of unease between Guardiola and Aguero.

Guardiola has said publicly on at least two occasions this season that he wants more from Aguero than just goals, just like he wanted more from Hart than simply making saves. After Aguero’s hat trick in the Champions League win over Borussia Moenchengladbach, Guardiola said: “I cannot teach him (about his talent in the penalty box) but he has to know that behind, the rest of the team wants to help him and that is what I want to convince him.”

While on international duty with Argentina this month, Aguero was quoted as telling Argentine media that Guardiola “is very picky about everything, (and) it’s good.

“The good thing is that I’m getting used to him and automatically going straight into pressing the centre backs.”

[ MORE: Sunday’s PL preview — Mourinho back at the Bridge; City-Saints ]

Aguero, who is contracted to City until 2020, has 11 goals in 10 appearances this season, and 19 in his last 20 dating to last season. There are few better, attainable strikers around and it will be intriguing to see how the situation pans out, especially with Brazil forward Gabriel Jesus due to arrive in December to provide competition up front.

Guardiola said on Friday he had no regrets about his decision to drop Aguero for the Barcelona game, which City lost 4-0 after having goalkeeper Claudio Bravo red-carded. That made it four games without a win for Guardiola, and a failure to beat Southampton would equal the longest streak without a victory in his coaching career.

In an answer that lasted more than 6 1/2 minutes on Friday, he defended his tactics at Camp Nou and praised the personality of his young players like John Stones and De Bruyne.

Guardiola repeated he will not change his style.

“I think about that, yes,” he said. “But after that, the solution is not better than what I believe. So I cannot. Do you know why as well? Because in seven years (at Barcelona and Bayern Munich), I won 21 titles. … So it’s three titles per year playing in that way.

“No, no, I’m not going to change. First, it’s going to happen that (if) it’s not going well in the future, next season isn’t going well in that way, I will go home.”

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Messi wins it late for Barca; AC Milan shock Juve

VALENCIA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates with his team mates as Neymar Jr. and Luis Suarez reacts on the pitch after being hit by objects thrown from the seats after scoring his team's third from the penalty spot during the La Liga match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at Mestalla stadium on October 22, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

Valencia 2-3 Barcelona

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez led Barcelona back from 2-1 down to take all three points at the Mestalla Stadium and reclaim the top spot in La Liga. There’s lots to unpack here, beginning with the nasty tackle that’ll keep Andres Iniesta (knee ligament damage) out of action for up to two months. Then there was the controversial fashion in which Messi gave Barca an early lead.

Valencia hit back twice before Suarez drew the visitors level again, and Messi converted from the penalty spot in the 93rd minute to seal the victory, at which point Neymar was hit by a bottle thrown onto the field by someone in the stands. In the end, Barca are back on top, until Real Madrid are allowed to have their say on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Espanyol 3-3 Eibar
Real Sociedad 3-0 Alaves
Granada 0-0 Sporting Gijon

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Celta Vigo vs. Deportivo La Coruña — 6 a.m. ET
Sevilla vs. Atletico Madrid — 10:15 a.m. ET
Malaga vs. Leganes — 12:30 p.m. ET
Villarreal vs. Las Palmas — 12:30 p.m. ET
Real Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:45 p.m. ET

AC Milan 1-0 Juventus

The kids are (a whole lot more than) alright at AC Milan. 18-year-old midfielder Manuel Locatelli unleashed a stunning strike in the 65th minute, as Milan shocked the world by upsetting the five-time (and six-time, presumably) defending champions, Juventus, at the San Siro. Then it was 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma’s turn to play his part, in the form of a stunning save to deny Sami Khedira an equalizer with the last kick of the game.

Juve remain top of the Serie A table, but it’s Milan who now sit second, just two points behind them.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Sampdoria 2-1 Genoa

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Udinese vs. Pescara — 6:30 a.m. ET
Torino vs. Lazio — 9 a.m. ET
Atalanta vs. Inter Milan — 9 a.m. ET
Cagliari vs. Fiorentina — 9 a.m. ET
Crotone vs. Napoli — 9 a.m. ET
Empoli vs. Chievo — 9 a.m. ET
Bologna vs. Sassuoo — 12 p.m. ET
Roma vs. Palermo — 2:45 p.m. ET