Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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The Rooney Factor

    It is a recurring theme in the history of the England team at the World Cup. Gordon Banks, one of the greatest goalkeepers ever to play the game, was struck down by Montezumaís Revenge on the eve of the World Cup quarter-final in Leon in 1970. Fast forward to Spain in 1982 and the case of Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking, both of whom missed the entire tournament bar a 27 minute cameo in the final second round game with Spain when the cause was all but lost. In 1986 and 1990 the captain and key player Bryan Robson made it to Mexico and Italy respectively but pre-tournament injuries resurfaced in the group stages and he was ruled out of the tournament early. Just prior to the last World Cup preparations were again thrown into chaos after the withdrawal of Steven Gerrard who required an operation.

    So it should have been no surprise on 30th April that yet again as a World Cup looms large a key England player gets injured. A ludicrously unpunished challenge by Paolo Ferreira of Chelsea caused it, cracking the fourth metatarsal (always the metatarsal) bone in the foot and leaving the player writhing in agony on the floor. It was clear that it was a bad one, and England colleagues from both teams rushed to the scene, fearing the worst. A familiar story, but with a subtle difference. For England, this was not a key player, but the key player. This was Wayne Rooney.

    Though his career has been short, it sometimes feels like Rooney has been around forever. He emerged just after the 2002 World Cup, a 16 year old prodigy with Everton who announced his arrival with a wondrous winning goal against Arsenal. That season he became the youngest player in the history of the national side after his debut against Australia. The brand of football the England team played back then was the type that had laboured to the quarter finals of the Japan/Korea World Cup before being swept off the road by Brazil Ė defensive, rigid, one-dimensional. Long balls to the head of Heskey or over the top for Michael Owen were the one idea, even against Luxembourg in March 2003, where England laboured to a 2-0 win.

    Four days later, the revolution started. To his eternal credit Sven Goran Eriksson plunged 17 year-old Rooney into the deep end for the Euro 2004 qualifier with Turkey in Sunderland, the third-placed team in the Far East. A brief synopsis of his first full game for England was that he was simply incredible. He ripped the Turks apart in a 2-0 victory, controlling the ball perfectly, caressing passes, ghosting away from defenders. One movement where he advanced over the halfway line past two defenders before sliding a perfect through-pass through the legs of another to set up Michael Owen was so sublime it almost didnít seem real. Only Paul Gascoigne in his absolute pomp could have pulled off such a manoeuvre in an England shirt.

    Since that day Rooney has become the focal point of the England attack, absolutely everything channels through him. He scored his first goal for England six months after his wonder show against Turkey, becoming the youngest ever goal scorer in Englandís history. At Euro 2004 he was man of the match in every game of the first round (UEFA churlishly took away that honour from the France game after Zidaneís late goals) and scored four goals. When a broken foot put him out of the tournament in the quarter-final against Portugal, England were leading one-nil and switched to defending their lead for the rest of the night, inevitably conceding and then losing on penalties. A chilling vision of what life is like without Rooney in the side, and how dependent we now are upon him.

    And now England must do without him again. Rooney will almost certainly go to the World Cup but there are only the slimmest chances of him playing. He is currently recovering from his injury in an oxygen chamber, desperately battling against time and nature so that he may play some part in Germany. It is hard to emphasise what a hammer blow this is to England chances, and the morale surrounding our whole participation. The ongoing injury to former European Footballer of the Year Michael Owen seems trifling by comparison. The optimists view is that he could be rushed back in time for the quarter-final; after all, this is a boy who scored a Champions League hat-trick on his Manchester United debut, three months after his injury in Portugal and with the albatross of a £28 million transfer fee hovering over him. This is the frightening level of expectation he now must deal with for the rest of his footballing life, having set the bar so high so early.

    A lot of newspapers are using the comparison that it is akin to Brazil losing Ronaldinho for most of or the entire tournament, but this is wrong, the situation is far worse than that for England. If Ronaldinho were unlucky enough to be ruled out, Juninho Pernambucano of Lyon could step in, not Ronaldinho-esque by any means but a world class player in his own right, and taking his place in a midfield with Kaka, Ze Roberto and Emerson. England without Rooney will turn to Peter Crouch of Liverpool or Theo Walcott, a promising but untried 17 year old prodigy with Arsenal. Neither is a bad player but the distance in quality and influence on the team between them and Rooney could currently be measured in light years. Perhaps a better analogy would be to imagine if Bobby Charlton had broken his foot a month before the 1966 World Cup kicked off. What would the history of English football be like then? Scary.

    England are (or is that were?) one of the favourites for this summerís World Cup because of the progress they have made since their quarter-final appearance in 2002. In that progress, undeniably, Wayne Rooney has been the difference. There are clearly no guarantees that England would win even if he was fully fit, and of course there are other top-class players at Englandís disposal like Owen, Terry and Gerrard, but when asked in the immediate aftermath of the injury if England could still win the World Cup without Rooney, Gerrard glumly admitted it would be impossible. Put as brave a face on it as you wish, but no more true comment has been made throughout this whole saga.

    He will be back, there will be other tournaments. He will be 24 at the next World Cup, an age at which give or take a year Garrincha, Zidane, Baggio and Gerd Muller made their debuts in the tournament. He still has time to make his mark on the biggest stage of all. There still lingers a sadness about the whole affair though, and it isnít wrapped up in all the hyperbole surrounding whether England can win their first trophy for 40 years. It is when you think back to the days pre-Rooney, pumping long, diagonal balls into the channels for the forwards to chase, playing with the utmost caution against the best teams in the world, hoping for free-kicks and corners to swing in to the penalty area that might yield a chance. Rooney changed all that, and that is the most depressing part. Without him, England are just no fun to watch.



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