Wayne Rooney: World Cup's most potent striker?

BOSTON — After England defeated Mexico 3-1 in a World Cup tune-up, coach Fabio Capello had a few things to be pleased about. His defenders had moved up to join the attack and had netted two goals, while 6’8” Peter Crouch was a thorn in the Mexican side, winning critical headers around the goal.

But the most comforting moment came midway through the first half when Wayne Rooney took a pass along the sidelines, pivoted and plowed past his defender — doing his best imitation of a freight train barreling toward the net. Though nothing came of the classic Rooney run, it was a welcome sign that he had fully recovered from nagging ankle and groin injuries that had slowed him with Manchester United at season’s end.

Read all of GlobalPost's World Cup 2010 coverage

It always seems hyperbolic when writers insist that the World Cup hopes of a nation rest on any single player. But in the case of England — with its desperate desire, after 44 years, for another Cup championship — and its 24-year-old superstar, Rooney, it seems a bit understated. Nike made the point exquisitely in its World Cup ad that hypothesizes alternative scenarios for Rooney after South Africa: failure and life as an outcast; success with knighthood not to mention a run on babies named Wayne.

Read more GlobalPost World Cup Coverage

Rooney, though only 5’9,” is built like a barrel with the broad shoulders that can carry the weight. Moreover, as a soccer prodigy, he has plenty of experience with England’s outsized expectations. In his debut for Everton at age 16, he netted the game-winner that ended Arsenal’s three-game unbeaten streak — and, at the time, was the youngest goal scorer in Premier League history.

His teens were marked by “youngest-ever” occasions. When he suited up for England at age 17, he was the youngest player in national team history. A year later he would score two goals against Switzerland to become the youngest scorer in the history of the European championships. Rooney scored twice more and was named to the all-tournament team. But all is not well that doesn’t end well. And Rooney broke a bone in his foot in the first half of the quarterfinals against Portugal and England went on to lose on penalty kicks.

That game foreshadowed more crushing disappointment at the 2006 World Cup. Rooney, who went into the tournament in less than tip-top shape because of another foot injury, failed to score a goal.

If Rooney’s curse has been his feet, England’s had become the quarterfinal, a hurdle the team couldn’t seem to leap. And on this occasion Rooney played a pivotal role in the failure. Once more facing Portugal, he was ejected after stomping on an opponent and England again lost the game in a penalty-kick shootout.

Back home Rooney was not subjected to anything approaching the crushing level of scorn that had descended on David Beckham for a similar misdeed in the 1998 World Cup. Most of England’s contempt was reserved for Rooney’s Manchester United teammate, Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese player whose outcry seemed to galvanize the referee into punitive action. (Perhaps the physical contrast between the protagonists created sympathy for Rooney; Ronaldo is tall, dark and handsome while Rooney, as London’s Independent has noted, resembles Shrek.)

All England wants from Rooney now is for him to do what he does for Man U, which is pretty much everything. Manchester United had paid Everton more than $40 million for the 18-year-old back in 2004. While he proved a consistent scorer and relentless sparkplug for the perennial Premiership power, he still was cast in a supporting role to Ronaldo. But when Ronaldo moved on to Real Madrid this past season, Rooney became the leading man and delivered a tour de force performance. He not only netted 34 goals in 44 games, but scored them in every way possible — with his left foot, with his right, with his head, up close and at a distance.

Despite the many veteran stars on the team, Rooney was unquestionably Man U’s field leader, ferocious in his play as well as his demands on his teammates. Having grown up in the hardscrabble tenement life of the poor north of England, Rooney has mostly rough edges. And if he has mellowed with age — as is often suggested — it is not readily discernible. Rooney seems almost to snort like a raging bull when he is displeased and is still prone to unleash a verbal torrent at a teammate or officials. Early in the Mexico game, he couldn’t mask his displeasure when, while standing undefended along the sidelines, a clearance pass went astray.

England’s biggest problem with Rooney has been finding him a complementary partner on the front line. During the qualifying campaign, Rooney scored more than a quarter of the team’s goals, more than twice as many as any other English player. That’s why three goals from players not named Rooney against Mexico was such a promising development. (In the next game against Japan, however, the attack was ineffective and the sum of England’s offensive efforts was two Japanese own goals.)

Rooney’s health is no longer the issue for England in South Africa. He appears ready, though his reckless style will always puts him at risk. The burning question, though, is whether the English team is ready to keep up with him.

Name: Wayne Rooney
Country: England
Age: 24
Club Team: Manchester United
World Cups: 1
World Cup Goals: 0   
Club appearances 2009-10: 44
Club goals 2009-10: 34

The stars:

Argentina's Lionel Messi: The brightest star at the start of the World Cup

Brazil's Kaka: Can the church-goer kick Brazil to another World Cup trophy?

United States' Landon Donovan: Will he lead the US to victory?

Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba: Africa's shining hope suffers last minute injury

The stories:

South Africa's soccer comes a long way from apartheid

North Koreans arrive in South Africa with no fans

Who's the better host: Johannesburg or Beijing?

Video: Soweto rocks World Cup with calabash stadium

Slide show: South Africa readies for World Cup 2010

Africa's first high speed train