Jack Wilshere smoked a cigarette and the nation got its knickers in a twist. Help me out here people, but I can’t see what the problem is. He didn’t smoke crack. He didn’t get off his tits on ketamine. He didn’t sell crystal meth to school kids. He didn’t drop acid, grow dreadlocks and become a cycle courier. In fact, he didn’t do anything illegal at all. He just smoked a sodding cigarette. Why is this even a news story?
As off-field misdemeanours go, Wilshere’s behaviour is so harmless it’s off the scale. There used to be a strong drinking culture in English football, nowhere more so than at Arsenal. The infamous ‘Tuesday Club’ - featuring the likes of Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Paul Merson and Perry Groves - used to partake in proper hardcore drinking sessions. Those guys knew how to binge drink. Other footballers got their kicks from recreational drugs. A number of professional footballers have reportedly failed drug tests after taking cocaine or smoking marijuana. Adrian Mutu was sacked by Chelsea for taking coke. Diego Maradona shovelled half of Colombia up his hooter and still managed to be the greatest player of his generation. What has Jack Wilshere done to deserve a reprimand? He hasn’t gone off the rails. He didn’t get hammered and crash his Ferrari. He didn’t check into rehab. He didn’t throw a punch or bottle anyone. He was merely photographed outside a nightclub puffing on a ciggie.
But of course, someone had to express disapproval, didn’t they? Wilshere’s boss, Arsene Wenger, wasn’t happy. ‘I disagree completely with that behaviour’, said the Arsenal manager. ‘When you are a football player you are an example and you don’t do what damages your health.’
Wilshere initially attempted the ‘I didn’t inhale’ defence. ‘Jack was with team-mates and friends. One dared Jack, who does not smoke, to momentarily hold the cigarette as part of a prank’, his representative explained. ‘Jack absolutely didn’t smoke the cigarette, and nor does he condone smoking. Jack is utterly committed to fitness and a healthy lifestyle.’ This stage-managed rebuttal was so laughably unconvincing that a contrite Wilshere was eventually forced to fess up. ‘I’m not a smoker, I don’t smoke 10 a day or whatever as people have been saying’, he told a press conference. ‘It was a mistake and I’ve learned from it. It’s tough.’
To be honest, I don’t really see why Wilshere even needs to apologise. He smoked a cigarette, that’s all. And he’s not the first footballer to have been caught on camera with a tab. Dimitar Berbatov was also pictured with a fag hanging from his mouth a few years ago. He too unconvincingly tried to deny that he was a smoker. ‘I just pretend to smoke to make me more of a cool guy’, said the Bulgarian striker. No one believed him, though, admittedly, he does look very cool with a cigarette. Wayne Rooney, Zinedine Zidane, Mesut Özil, Mario Balotelli and Ashley Cole have all been pictured smoking. Are they heavy smokers? Perhaps not.
But there have been plenty of great footballers who smoked like chimneys. Socrates, the elegant Brazilian midfielder, smoked 40 cigarettes a day. So did Argentine World Cup winner Osvaldo Ardiles. Johan Cruyff was a 20-a-day man. Croatian international Robert Prosinečki reportedly puffed his way through 50 per day, while his national team-mate Slaven Bilić was also a heavy smoker. All these players were able to perform at the very highest level despite having serious cigarette habits.
French international goalkeeper Fabien Barthez was another World Cup winner who enjoyed a cigarette. Sir Alex Ferguson, who famously eradicated the drinking culture at Old Trafford, took a much more lenient approach to smoking. ‘In England, it’s a rare thing to see a player smoking but, all in all, I prefer that to an alcoholic’, said Fergie. ‘The relationship with alcohol is a real problem in English football and, in the short term, it’s much more harmful to a sportsman. It weakens the body, which becomes more susceptible to injury.’ Football, of course, has changed in recent years and demands much greater levels of fitness and stamina. Whereas a chain-smoker like Socrates used to stroll languidly around the pitch at his own pace, modern football tactics, such as Barcelona’s high pressing game, require supreme levels of fitness. Could a 40-a-day man like Socrates survive in today’s game? Sadly, there’s little room in the modern game for artistic strollers, whether they smoke or not.
Of course, you don’t need to be a doctor to understand that heavy smoking could have an adverse effect on a footballer’s lung capacity and consequently impair their stamina. So, I can see the argument against footballers smoking purely on the grounds of athletic performance. However, Arsene Wenger’s reaction to the Wilshere incident conflates performance with morality. ‘You can damage your health at home - you can smoke at home and you can drink at home - and nobody sees it, but when you go out socially you also damage your reputation as an example’, said Wenger. In other words, Wilshere’s crime was to smoke in public, conduct which is not befitting of a role model.
I’m sick of the constant refrain that footballers should be role models. Jack Wilshere isn’t in the business of health promotion. Arsenal isn’t the sporting arm of Public Health England. His job is to kick a football, not to set an example to our kids. He should be judged solely on his performances on the pitch. And if he enjoys the occasional ciggie on a night out? So what? We should butt out of his private life.