Offside, 18 November

England is caught between Rooneymania and Pa-roo-noia.

Duleep Allirajah

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Hands up anyone still wearing a ‘Make Sven History’ wristband? No, thought not. After England’s thrilling 3-2 victory over Argentina in Geneva, the ‘Sack the Swede’ campaign has fallen silent. And incredibly, just two months after England’s hapless performance against Northern Ireland, the bookies have installed England as second favourites to win the World Cup.

Although the match against Argentina was the most fiercely contested ‘friendly’ I’ve ever seen, it still doesn’t tell us much about England’s chances of winning the World Cup. England’s infuriatingly inconsistent performances make the art of prediction nigh on impossible. The only prediction that can be made with any certainty is that England’s chances of success are completely, utterly, umbilical cord-connectedly dependent on a 21-year old Scouser. Without Wayne Rooney, England are too plodding, too predictable. But when Rooney’s name is on the team sheet anything is possible.

Michael Owen’s late double-strike provided fantastic edge-of-the-seat excitement, but it was Wayne Rooney’s performance over 90 minutes that, I would argue, was far more significant. He terrorised defenders, scored a goal, hit the post and, in one breathtaking moment, went past two opponents and very nearly succeeded in chipping the backpeddling goalkeeper. No wonder the delirious England fans chanted ‘Rooney, Rooney, Rooney’ at the final whistle. It’s not poetry, more your Ronseal ‘does-what-it-says-on-the-tin’ kind of chant, but it expresses our total and unswerving devotion to the Croxteth Pele (or should that be the Merseyside Maradona?).

No wonder that BBC football pundits Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer gushed over Rooney’s performance in the post-match analysis. ‘Rooney is a genuine English superstar. Forget potential. Forget someone threatening to become a world-class superstar. He is the real thing’, wrote Hansen in his BBC Online column. ‘He is no Diego Maradona just yet, but he has got everything. Pace, power, strength, creativity, goals.’ The comparisons with Maradona may seem premature but Euro 2004 gave us a glimpse of Rooney’s ability to lift England above the merely ordinary. And remember how Diego Maradona dragged an otherwise mediocre Argentine team to the 1990 World Cup final?

But invariably whenever Rooneymania breaks out it is never a completely joyous and unqualified phenomenon. Rooneymania is always tempered with the deep-rooted fear that our squat, pug-faced national treasure might self-combust – that his short fuse might spectacularly blow under provocation from sly, ankle-biting, shirt-tugging ‘continentals’. Every single indiscretion on Rooney’s part is woven into a fearful narrative of potential Gazza-like self-destruction – or Pa-roo-noia, as the tabloid caption writers might put it.

He consorts with PVC-clad granny-prostitutes, he swears at referees (when he isn’t sarcastically applauding them), he appears on stage with bad-boy rapper 50 Cent, he calls David Beckham a ‘flash bastard’…and so on. In our sporting imagination the Roy of the Rovers fantasy of Rooney scoring a wonder-goal against Brazil coexists with a nightmarish premonition of England’s World Cup campaign being scuppered by an ill-timed Roon-rage expletive-fest.

But it is precisely that delicious tension between his footballing genius and his darker petulant side that makes the Wayne Rooney Show the most compelling show in town. So compelling that even Mike Tyson, the ‘baddest man on the planet’, is hooked. The National Association of Head Teachers claims that Rooney’s foulmouthed tirades against referees are corrupting our children, but Tyson instinctively understands that the secret of his popular appeal is precisely that he is no angel. ‘The masses will always be with guys like Roon, not with the straight guy’, remarked Tyson. He may be a washed-up boxer but he has a point.

What is refreshing about Wayne Rooney is that he does not conform to the airbrushed, PR-managed, marketing man’s ideal sporting role model. So what if he swears at referees, shags grannies and looks like Shrek? Who’s interested in bland squeaky-clean football heroes anyway? Liam Gallagher once said that ‘Michael Owen looks like trainee CID’ and he was right. No matter how many goals Owen scores for England he will never be a true terrace hero – he is just too clean-cut and anodyne.

If Michael Owen resembles a copper, then Wayne Rooney looks more like ASBO-fodder. But, apart from teenage girls and gay men, why should his looks bother the rest of us? Football fans don’t care that jug-eared Rooney is no oil painting. We like the fact that he’s a bit rough around the edges. And we love the fact that England has produced a footballer capable of striking fear into the hearts of opposing defenders. To the moralists Rooney is a cipher for the perceived decline in behavioural standards – but to the ordinary man on the Clapham bendy-bus, Rooney is the personification of footballing glory.

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