Wayne Rooney has already achieved a level of success that comes to the fewest of the few in sport. Four Premier League titles with Manchester United and the owner of a Champions League winners' medal from 2008, Rooney could retire tomorrow and dine off his glories in red for a lifetime.
They call him "the white Pele" at Old Trafford. There can be no higher accolade, and United fans could think no more highly of the player most consider to be their outstanding talent.
"Rooooney," comes the guttural call every time their hero appears before them. When he receives the ball, the banks of red shirts rise as one, ignited by the endless possibilities of Rooney in forward motion.
In that moment, nobody in the stadium cares about his private life. Nobody cares that he handed in a transfer request in 2010. Because with Rooney, you never get anything less than a full-blooded assault on the job at hand.
Fans love a trier. They'll fall in love with one who comes sprinkled with genius.
On his day, Rooney is as unplayable as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. He's a force of nature with 360-degree vision and that rare blend of power and poise, and he's capable of slicing up the sharpest defenses in the game.
By rights, he should be classed in the top handful of players on the planet.
But for all his undisputed gifts, Rooney remains a considerable distance behind Messi, Ronaldo and several others when it comes to the conversation of the players to have defined this generation.
Some of that we can put to injuries—not least when it comes to his underwhelming performances with the England national team, which he will captain for the second time against San Marino on Friday.
Rooney was injured heading into the 2006 World Cup. He went to the tournament regardless, but inevitably all we got was a diluted version of the teenager who had blazed onto the scene with his performances at Euro 2004.
The frustration of not being able to access his gifts was arguably partly to blame for his red card against Portugal in the quarterfinals. With that came confirmation that Rooney's volatility—if unaddressed—posed a genuine threat to his achieving the natural conclusion of his talent.
England didn't make it to Euro 2008. So by the time World Cup 2010 came round, Rooney was 24 and a player with a point to prove.
Said Rooney in April 2010, as per The Mirror:
I hope this could be the summer when I can put myself ahead of Ronaldo and Messi and show what I'm capable of doing.
Because if that happens then England have to win the World Cup—so I'll be happy on both fronts. Seriously, I think we have the squad to do well, to win it.
It didn't happen in South Africa. Perhaps unsettled by the speculation surrounding his private life, Rooney was unrecognizable from the talismanic figure we'd seen conquer Europe with Manchester United.
England were appallingly bad, and Rooney could do nothing to avert their course to disaster. He looked labored and short on inspiration, and his campaign was blighted further by another public show of frustration—this time aimed at England's traveling fans. Rooney went home with his talent yet again unfulfilled.
Something wasn't right. Rooney asked for a transfer request when he returned to Manchester United, and the possibility was briefly presented that he would leave for Manchester City.
Sir Alex Ferguson talked him out of it, but there followed a lull in form that wasn't fully addressed until he scored arguably the most iconic goal of his career against City in February, 2011. That returned him to an upward trajectory, and United would go on to win their 19th league title.
But still doubts remained over Rooney's ability to bring influence on the biggest stage. Though he scored in the 2011 Champions League final, he was outshone by Lionel Messi, and United were—for a second time—comprehensively outclassed by Pep Guardiola's team in club's football's biggest game.
Further evidence arrived at Euro 2012. Rooney, of his own making, was suspended for England's first two games, but provided precious little evidence of his talent in his team's penalty shootout loss to Italy in the quarterfinals.
Another big tournament; another underwhelming return from Rooney.
At 26, you have to wonder how many chances remain for him to stake a genuine claim to greatness. Two World Cups (2014 and 2018) and two Euros (2016, 2020) maybe? Six or seven campaigns with United in the Champions League?
Perhaps Ferguson's experiment with Rooney atop his midfield diamond is the fresh impetus he needed on the pitch. Maybe brief possession of the England captaincy is the impetus he needed off it.
There's still time. But if Rooney truly yearns to be considered a peer to Messi and Ronaldo, he can barely afford to waste any more opportunities.
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