If Italia 90 is remembered in England as Gazza’s tournament, there are high hopes that South Africa 2010 will go down in history as ‘Wazza’s.’
Wayne Rooney, as he is better known, has already surpassed the achievements of the talented maverick Paul Gascoigne in all ways bar one – he has yet to light up a FIFA World Cup™ with his talent. The signs are that this could be the year for the 24-year-old Liverpudlian, who was England’s top scorer with nine goals in qualifying and arrives in South Africa after his best season yet in front of goal.
Handed a central striking role at Manchester United following Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, Rooney has revelled in the responsibility, passing the 30-goal mark for the first time.
It is now eight years since Rooney burst on to the scene, thrilling the fans of his boyhood favourites Everton with his prodigious gifts. He was 16 but could do just about anything with his strength, pace, vision and dribbling ability. His first Premier League goal summed up his ‘let-me-at-’em’ attitude: a thumping 30-yard last-minute strike that ended champions Arsenal’s 30-game unbeaten run.
Rooney soon became his country’s youngest player when making his senior debut at 17 years and 111 days in a February 2003 friendly against Australia. He made international football look like child’s play, becoming England’s youngest scorer with a goal in a UEFA EURO 2004 qualifier against FYR Macedonia seven months later.
Utterly fearless, the 18-year-old Rooney took Europe by storm when unleashed at the ensuing finals in Portugal. He registered four goals and might have inflicted more damage but for the fractured metatarsal he sustained with England leading Portugal in a quarter-final they eventually lost on penalties.
By the time Rooney had recovered, he was a Manchester United player following his August 2004 switch to Old Trafford for a £27m fee. He rose to the occasion once more on his United debut, hitting a hat-trick against Fenerbahce in the UEFA Champions League. His talent was without question yet there were doubts over his temperament and they resurfaced to unhappy effect at the FIFA World Cup in Germany.
Rooney had rushed back from another metatarsal injury to take his place in England’s squad but he was not at his best and another quarter-final against Portugal ended prematurely for him – albeit this time with a red card for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho. Of course, Rooney is not the first talented tyro to overheat in the pressure cooker of a FIFA World Cup – Diego Maradona did the same first time around and there are England supporters hoping Rooney can make a similar impact as Argentina’s No10 managed on his second try.
Four years on from Gelsenkirchen, Rooney – who has won three Premier League titles and a UEFA Champions League in the intervening period – has certainly matured impressively. He became a father last October and the following month captained England for the first time in a Dubai friendly against Brazil. For all his star quality, he still works tirelessly for his team and no defence will look forward to facing him in South Africa.