If you lend football even the vaguest interest, you'll be familiar with Wayne Rooney. Manchester United's pug-faced striker is one of the game's biggest stars, and ubiquitous in the marketing of soccer throughout the world.
Rooney's endorsement deals read like a portfolio for world domination. A cover star for the all-conquering FIFA video game franchise; the frontman for Nike's football apparel line; the face of Malaysian brand Mr Potato Head, whose chips are munched by millions.
As a casual observer looking in, you'd assume Rooney was one of the best players on the planet, if not the best. He'd have to be, because why else would you put that face on the front of your product? David Beckham we can understand, but Rooney's commodity is clearly not his Hollywood looks.
Rooney's selling point is as a talent realised. This is a man who rose from a rough council estate in Liverpool to play for one of the world's greatest teams. "Anything is possible," so goes the Nike slogan. But in Rooney's case, is it really so? Or are we talking about one sport's great underachievers?
While there's no doubting Rooney has a gift rarely given, those who follow the England national team will tell you he's wasted it thus far on the biggest stage. If you view international football as the pinnacle, the equivalent of baseball's playoffs, Rooney is the A-Rod of soccer—a perpetual ghost in the moments he was born to dominate.
Rooney's record at major international tournaments reads like the script for a disaster movie. At Euro 2004 he limped out with injury, at World Cup 2006 he was sent off for kicking Portugual's Ricardo Carvalho in the quarterfinals and at last summer's World Cup in South Africa he was so affected by scandal gripping his private life, England would arguably have been better off without him.
Rooney's latest indiscretion was the most careless of them all. With England all but assured of qualification for Euro 2012, leading Montenegro 2-1 and with less than 20 minutes of their 13-month campaign remaining, he inexplicably kicked out. The result was a straight red card, and a ban that will see him miss all three group games at next summer's finals in Poland and Ukraine (pending appeal).
It says everything about the 25-year-old that we weren't in the least surprised. England's great hope, the man United fans called "the white Pele," had once again been hamstrung by his toddler temperament.
At least Rooney's baseball equivalent fails with dignity. "A-Rod made $31 million this season, and hit .111 in the playoffs," wrote Sean Gregory for Time Magazine. But did he storm the plate and start throwing punches? Or bark abuse at Yankees fans into a pitch-side camera? I'm not a big baseball guy, but I'm pretty sure I would have heard if he had.
Looking at their respective issues, I wonder if Rooney and A-Rod would benefit from an exchange of ideas—and some time together before they enter the breach next summer. Rooney could clearly learn from A-Rod's calmness in the heat of battle, while A-Rod might find a little of Rooney's bulldog spirit and blood-and-guts commitment is exactly what he needs.
Seeing as United and the Yankees have a corporate tie-in, surely somebody could make that happen. And judging by their (alleged) mutual appreciation for hookers, I get the feeling Rooney and A-Rod would get on like a house on fire.
My final words goes to Yankees fans still smarting from that playoff loss to Detroit. If you find yourself in a hole, drinking neat whisky for breakfast and avoiding your colleagues for fear of abuse, spare a thought for those follow the England football team. We invented this game of soccer, but not since 1966 have we had a day in the sun, and judging by our overwhelming reliance on a man who acts like a child, we'll be under grey skies for a few more years yet.