Boo to the Rooney-bashers
England’s finest footballer needs to be let off the leash, not lectured about his anger, language and beliefs.
In England’s dismal start to the World Cup, the most depressing thing ‘for me’ (as all pundits must say these days) was seeing Wayne Rooney forced to apologise to the nation for ‘any offence caused’ by his criticism of the England fans who booed the team at the end of the Algeria debacle.
Of course the disappointed fans in South Africa have the right to boo, barrack or bollock as they see fit – free speech is the least you should expect for such an expensive trip. But then the frustrated Rooney should also be free to reply in kind. Surely the football fans of today are not so pathetic as to be mortally offended by Rooney’s rather restrained riposte, to the TV cameras, ‘Nice to see your own fans booing you’. Yet the media and self-appointed fans’ spokespersons decided this was, in the words of the BBC’s normally opinion-free Alan Shearer, ‘totally unacceptable’, with many apparently more upset about Rooney’s momentary ejaculation than by the load of wank he and his team mates served up for 180 minutes on the pitch.
Indeed it has become open season on Rooney, who has apparently gone from national hero to zero overnight, accused of insulting the nation, misleading the youth and embodying What’s Wrong With Football. You surely know you are in trouble when the execrable Piers ‘Moron’ Morgan not only demands that you be dropped from the England team but also feels free to describe you as an ‘overblown, overpaid, overhyped halfwit’ who has ‘committed that hideously self-defeating crime of starting to believe his own bulls**t’, in a contender for the pots-and-kettles remark of the year.
What’s going on? The shock-horror headlines about Rooney ought to be no more than ‘Very good footballer has couple of very bad games’. And given the goldfish-like attention span of much of the media, should he score against Slovenia on Wednesday afternoon and England scrape through to the knockout stages, no doubt he will be lauded once again.
Yet much of the recent Rooney-bashing has relatively little to do with events on the field. It shows another side of what is really ‘wrong with the game today’. Football has become so over-inflated in importance that somebody such as Rooney is now expected to carry not only the nation’s sporting dreams but also its moral welfare. Brought on as a substitute for society’s crocked public life, football has in effect become a receptacle for all of the cultural crap of the twenty-first century, from ‘role models’ and thin-skinned syndrome to political correctness and therapy culture. Rooney now finds himself in the firing line of all that.
Since he exploded on to the football stage aged 16, there has always been an ambivalence about Rooney, the brilliant Scouse ‘rough diamond’ from the streets of Croxteth – especially among the New Football crowd. He was mocked for supposedly being thick and uncultured, from a fighting Irish background – and then mocked again for going ‘posh’ when it was reported that he was studying for a couple of GCSEs (his childhood sweetheart and wife, Coleen, already has a hatful) and following the lead of his Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, by taking an interest in what Fergie no doubt calls ‘feen weens’.
The recent Rooney hullabaloo shows that he has become so elevated in the football firmament, however, that his every word and deed must be subjected to serious analysis and portentous meaning. The player who stands out for his combination of being an ordinary man with an extraordinary talent is no longer, it seems, allowed to be normal, with the normal emotions and beliefs of other people.
So when Rooney answered a press conference question about the large crucifix he wears in training by saying straightforwardly ‘It’s my religion’, he was immediately cut short by a Football Association PR man stating, Ali Campbell-like, ‘We don’t do religion’. Why? Presumably they were worried that Rooney might offend and alienate all non-Catholic England fans.
And when Rooney complained to those TV cameras while being booed off at the end of the Algeria game, it was not considered enough for the management to tell him to ‘calm down’ in the style of Harry Enfield’s Scousers. Instead he had to be put both in the stocks and on a couch by the national media, with pundits condemning him for setting a bad example while experts lined up to express their fears that Rooney is a ‘timebomb’ waiting to explode England’s campaign. The therapy culture that has forced footballers such as Tony Adams and Paul Merson to go through the public confessional in the past was now homing in on Rooney. It was sad to see the player who refused to apologise after being sent off in the last World Cup being browbeaten into bending the knee so quickly this time.
But why should Rooney or any other footballer be expected to act as a role model for anybody else? What on earth is wrong with being angry and frustrated and kicking holes in the wall when your whole World Cup appears to be going down the drain?
Some of us could not care less about the drone of the self-righteous media moralisers and the self-appointed spokesman for England fandom on the websites and radio phone-ins. Rooney is a footballer. What matters is how he performs on the pitch. He has been playing badly under the weight of expectations (and possibly of injury). And all of the excess baggage he has been loaded down with in recent weeks is hardly going to help.
As I have noted before, ‘for me’ Rooney is the finest England footballer seen in 40 years since the golden generation of Booby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Greaves (only Paul Gascoigne in his short-lived pomp comes close). Rooney has the talent to take on the world, as he showed as a teenager in Euro 2004. There is surely a danger however of some of the spirit being knocked out of him. He has already been hobbled by being messed about by Ferguson at United, who made him act like a water-carrier for Ronaldo before finally giving him his head last season. In the first two World Cup games he seemed hidebound playing for Capello’s England, where he has so far been denied the freedom to rampage around as he does like nobody else. When your world-class striker starts coming back to the halfway line looking for the ball, you are in serious trouble.
Instead of letting Rooney loose, however, we seem intent on tying him up in yet more rules and etiquette and analysing the life out of him. Enough.
Sport is perhaps the one area of life where it is still possible for grown men and women to have heroes. If so, Rooney is my hero – a truly remarkable thing for a Manchester United fan ever to say about a Scouser. Like many others, I could not care less about his religious beliefs or language skills or his anger management issues or whatever. I do not want him to teach my children how to behave – that is my job. His is to show us things with a football that we could never dream of doing.
The boy-man wonder may be seen by some just now as, in the words of one headline ‘Rooney the loony’. But he is our loony. That is football, whether those who treat it as a national moral crusade/therapy session understand it or not.
Should England mess up again versus Slovenia on Wednesday and be eliminated from the World Cup that some foolhardily claimed they would win, no doubt Rooney will be crucified again by erstwhile worshippers in the media for his mistakes and faux pas. The same thing happened to David Beckham of course after he was sent off in the 1998 World Cup. When he was subsequently booed by some opposition supporters around the country, United fans responded with a rousing chorus of ‘You can stick your fucking England up your arse’. I would not blame Rooney if he responded in similarly unrestrained terms next time.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked. He will be writing on the World Cup for the next two weeks.
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