Will this be the World Cup in which England’s superstar finally fulfills his promise?
The billowing blue shirt and baggy shorts could not contain the purpling menace inside. It was 2002, Wayne Rooney was about to turn 17 and already swerving past Premier League defenders like a bowling ball through duckpins. In a sport and country where the next big thing is never more than a timely goal away, Everton’s boy—a native of Croxteth, Liverpool—scored them routinely while also flashing the “European” flair and wit that intoxicates so many English football agonists.
Less than a calendar year later, in September 2003, he was playing for England against Macedonia when he notched the first of his 38 international goals. At 17 years and 317 days old, he became—and remains—the youngest man to score for England.
“Of course he has a lot to learn,” then-manager Sven-Goran Eriksson told the press in Skopje after the match, “but if things go to plan, he can go very, very far.”
This summer, a decade after his four goals and uniquely English exit—via broken metatarsal—from the 2004 European Championship in Portugal, Wayne Rooney will enjoy his last best chance to write himself a legacy equal to his generational talent. A young man in any other kind of life, he is an aging character in an unforgiving game. Rooney, at 28, will never have the same level of influence, on the field or off as he does right now.
He is now a more measured performer, rarely breaking into the cannonading runs or becoming enmeshed in the tabloid scandals that characterized his earlier career. In 2014, Rooney mostly speaks like a man who knows that his Champions League winners’ medal, five league titles, the cup victories and highlight-reel goals and England caps—all of it—will somehow never credit him the way Liverpool’s honors do Steven Gerrard or Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and John Terry. David Beckham, United’s great English star before Rooney, authored strikingly parallel sporting achievements, disappointments, and personal narrative turns, but never occupied the same psychic space. He was a different creature, an economic colossus and cultural icon whose existence alone said something about society. Rooney, never stupid even if he seemed uninterested in appearing smart, has long denied any interest in all that.
“When you are 16 there is no fear whatsoever,” he wrote in Wayne Rooney: My Story So Far, an autobiography he published before his 21st birthday. “As you get older you play in more important games and that is when you start thinking about what will happen if you win or lose.”
And he was right. Eight years and two disappointing World Cups later, Rooney sounds like the tested veteran he has, almost amazingly, grown to become.
“There is no point playing for England 150 times or 100 times if you don’t win anything,” he said at a corporate-sponsored promotional event earlier this month in Manchester. “That number [of caps] is irrelevant if you have won nothing. That’s the way I look at it.”
As he takes the field in Manaus on June 14, Rooney’s opinion on this matter will matter a great deal to his teammates and manager. Eighty-nine caps after his “schoolboy” debut, Rooney the senior international has finally arrived. A great deal of the credit for this goes to Hodgson’s decision to dismiss the cabal of veterans who had dominated bootroom politics since Rooney’s debut. Chelsea’s John Terry and Ashley Cole, along with Rooney’s United teammates Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick, have all been left out, and with their departures, there is finally space for new voices—or, perhaps even better, some quiet.
In their place, at least seven players, all on the right side of 25, have been drafted into key positions. The captain, 33-year-old Steven Gerrard, has apparently made his peace with playing a more withdrawn and limited role. With Gerrard playing deeper and a selection of true strikers ready to lead the line, Rooney will finally be able to play a role suited to his sublime spatial awareness and innate, immediate understanding of what is, what could, and what will be. This summer, there will be teammates with the pace and guile to meet his incisive passes.
“The four forwards we’ve selected are very good,” Hodgson told The Guardian after naming his 23-man squad on May 12. “I’m hoping the responsibility for scoring England’s goals is shared and that might give Wayne the chance to show the other aspects of his game. “Has he got the ability? Yes, he has. Let’s hope he can show the form that makes Wayne Rooney the player he is.”
This, ultimately, is the question facing Rooney as England arrives in Brazil: What kind of player are you?
To be young and scoring for England is heaven until it becomes a kind of hell. Ask Michael Owen. Perhaps Rooney is the boy who, as a man, could not live up to those four goals in Portugal? Perhaps it was unfair to think anyone could? Or maybe something different will emerge—the circumstances do seem to be conspiring in his favor—and Wayne Rooney will leave Brazil with a story, finally, to fill an autobiography worth reading.