Stop giving Wayne Rooney a kicking

So what if he sometimes boots opposing players and says the f-word to the cameras? Football’s a passionate sport.

Duleep Allirajah

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‘An idiot abroad’, was the damning verdict of The Times (London). ‘Will Rooney ever learn?’ thundered the Observer.

England had lost their collective composure long before Wayne Rooney’s red card in the seventy-third minute of their match against Montenegro, yet the media’s wrath has mostly been directed at the Manchester United striker. A moment of madness, which has been punished with a three-match ban, has once again left England’s Euro 2012 hopes in Roo-ins. Kicking out at Miodrag Dzudovic was stupid, I’ll grant you, but our national obsession with Rooney’s volatile temperament is even worse.

The amateur psychologists were out in force after the final whistle, dissecting the flaws in Rooney’s psyche. Some questioned whether Rooney’s head was in the proverbial ‘right place’ after his father’s arrest for taking part in an alleged ‘spot fixing’ betting scam. Others bemoaned his immaturity and persistent failure to control his temper. Fabio Capello acknowledged Rooney’s ‘silly mistake’ but added that ‘it will be a really good lesson for him’. The Observer’s Paul Wilson had his doubts, saying ‘it remains open to question whether Rooney is capable of learning from his mistakes’.

Rooney’s fiery temper has been a national preoccupation ever since he trampled on Ricardo Carvalho’s cojones in the 2006 World Cup quarter-final. We lurch from Rooneymania when the striker performs his magic on the pitch to pa-roo-noia when the red mist descends. Why is this?

Firstly, it’s because of the over-inflated cultural significance of football today. Everything Rooney does on and off the field has been under perpetual scrutiny ever since he was anointed the new Messiah after Euro 2004. If he swears on TV, for example, it provokes fears that schoolkids will copy him and the social fabric will unravel. For the past seven years, Rooney has been a fixture on the front and back pages, not to mention the gossip columns. But rather than agonise over Wazza, it’s time we admitted that our society suffers from a serious and deeply unhealthy Rooney obsession. We can’t get enough of Roo: his dalliances with hookers, his broken metatarsal, his marital problems, his hair transplant, his foul-mouthed tirades and, most recently, his father’s alleged attempt at defrauding the bookies.

The second and more prosaic reason for our Roo-fixation is England’s continuing over-reliance on one footballer. He is the only English footballer of the current crop who is anywhere approaching world class. Sure, we have the remnants of the so-called Golden Generation: Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Rio Ferdinand. But Rooney is a cut above. He is a game changer. And it’s an indictment of the English Premier League, whose clubs invest millions in youth academies, that we have failed to produce more footballers of Rooney’s calibre. We fret over Rooney’s form, fitness and temperament because England’s international hopes are still utterly reliant on one player.

Rooney’s three-match ban, which rules him out of the group stage of the Euro 2012 finals, has sparked a debate about whether he should even be included in the England squad. Capello has suggested that Rooney’s place in the team cannot be guaranteed after he has served his suspension. But we all know that’s a load of bunkum. Rooney is irreplaceable. You only have to look at the alternatives to realise that: Darren Bent, Jermain Defoe, Andy Carroll… No further evidence, m’lud.

I think we’re making far too much fuss about Roo-rage. Sure, sometimes he loses it. His frustration boils over. Occasionally he gets himself sent off – and I’d stress the ‘occasionally’. His red card in Montenegro was only his second in a 73-cap England career that stretches back to 2003. There was also the friendly against Spain in 2004 when he was substituted to save him from being red-carded. But for most of his international career, he has kept his temper under control. And if he loses his head every now and then, so what? Football is an aggressive, ultra-competitive, passionate game so it’s inevitable that players do stupid things from time to time. Creative players like Dennis Bergkamp, Eric Cantona and Zinedine Zidane all had chequered disciplinary records. They were capable of spellbinding artistry, but also prone to occasional acts of petulance and brutality.

I suspect that those now crucifying Rooney would be much more forgiving if, like Eric Cantona, he had a penchant for cod-philosophical utterances. Cantona’s career was littered with acts of ill-discipline and violence: abuse of French officials, punch-ups with team-mates in France, his brutal stamp on Swindon’s John Moncur and, of course, that kung-fu kick. But Cantona’s disciplinary lapses were always excused as the excesses of a tormented genius. After Cantona’s flying kick at Selhurst Park, his acolytes blamed the chauvinistic taunts of his targer, Palace supporter Matthew Simmons. Richard Williams wrote in the Independent on Sunday: ‘The more we discovered about Mr Simmons, the more Cantona’s assault looked like the instinctive expression of a flawless moral judgement.’

Similarly, Zidane’s headbutt on Marco Materazzi was reinterpreted as a justifiable reaction to a racial slur. French campaign group SOS Racisme claimed, without any foundation, that the Italian defender had called Zidane a ‘dirty terrorist’. Rooney has no such apologists ready and willing to ennoble his occasional acts of violence. He isn’t seen as an artist or a philosopher. He is widely regarded as vulgar, common and thuggish. His team-mate Federico Macheda described Rooney as a bit of a coatto, a Roman slang term which was widely translated as ‘chav’ but which, according to Italian journalist Gabriele Marcotti, means a ‘brash, unrefined, working-class kid’. The point is that, when Rooney kicks someone, it is seen as a manifestation of his inner thug, whereas when Cantona or Zidane did the same, the provocation was to blame.

I really think we should get off Rooney’s back. He’s not the saviour of English football nor is he the guardian of the nation’s morals. He’s just a very good footballer who occasionally does something silly. If we fail at Euro 2012, it won’t be because of Rooney. It will be because we haven’t produced anyone else remotely as good.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. He will be taking part in the debate Who is the greatest-ever Olympian? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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