For a player who ought to have arrived in the sunny uplands of the highveld in prime physical and psychological condition, Wayne Rooney has been the source of a lot of thunderclaps in the past few weeks. From his verbal outburst in the little stadium at Moruleng here on Monday evening, to the warnings delivered by his lawyers to the distributors of an unauthorised biography which actually praises him, Rooney exudes rage. England need peak and all they seem to get is pique.
The opposition certainly sense an opportunity. The United States central defender Jay DeMerit, who will probably see more of Rooney than most in the 44,000 capacity Royal Bafokeng Stadium on Saturday evening and whose job it will be to stop him, made it clear yesterday that he is relishing the prospects of the Englishman boiling over in the opening Group C game – though he has no intention of deliberately provoking him. "If he brings that stuff out in the way we play against him then that's good," DeMerit said. "I'm not going to try and bring it out on a personal level. You try to make his day difficult and if a guy has as much fire as he has then maybe those kind of things come out."
It has been a return of the temperamental side to his character which seemed to have been drummed out of Rooney by Fabio Capello – "a fearsome man" as he once described the manager. Before the friendly against Slovakia at Wembley in March 2009 Capello described Rooney as a "crazy, crazy man" and warned him to keep his temper. No one with England's interests at heart needs reminding of the wretched day in Gelsenkirchen against the Portuguese in their last World Cup finals game when that short fuse saw Rooney sent off and cost Sven Goran Eriksson's side dear.
So why this latent anger, which also surfaced on the pitch against Japan in Graz 10 days ago? The relative dynamics of the Manchester United and England set-ups perhaps offer some explanation. At Old Trafford, Rooney has that triumvirate of elder statesmen – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and sometimes Gary Neville – to keep him in order, with Giggs in particular the player who will be inclined to have the quiet word on the field of play. Rooney lets other players have it sometimes – Nani received a mouthful for his poor support against Milan back in February – but Rooney knows his place.
Out on the pitch with England, though, his short frame stands head and shoulders above all others. Some have tried to keep him in line – most notably David Beckham, at Windsor Park during the desultory defeat to Northern Ireland five years ago when the two of them squared up to each other. But now, in a side robbed first of its captain and then its vice captain, no one – and least of all Steven Gerrard – seems ready to take up that role.
Gerrard surely feels the pressure which has been building on the striker, though. Rooney has become the source of such feverish and anxious World Cup discussion for so long in England – it is over two months since the damaged ankle he sustained against Bayern Munich started the first panic– that the wait for the tournament to start has simply become interminable for him. Rooney is generally more willing than most to stop and talk in the "mixed zone" areas laid out for interviews after major fixtures, which is why his irritable demeanour after the warm-up match against Mexico at Wembley two weeks ago was so striking. Would he be missing his son, Kai, during his enforced World Cup absence, he was asked. "I don't know how many times I've heard this," he snapped. "If they [wives and children] want to go they can go. End of. I've said many times I'm not stopping them. They're England fans as well."
Rarely has an individual so single-handedly carried his nation's hopes. The events which are about to unfold here cap a season which Rooney began by declaring that he wanted to graduate from "someone who could be great" into "someone who is a great player" and Capello did not douse the expectations in an interview with Match of the Day magazine published yesterday. "There isn't a better player in the world [than Rooney]," Capello said. "He's always willing to learn and he never thinks he knows it all. He is very important."
John Terry and Rio Ferdinand both asserted yesterday that there would be no temperament problem with Rooney. "In the last two or three years I honestly do feel that he has grown up a lot and I think at times like that we could have done with a bit more of that [aggression] in the first half [in Moruleng]," said Terry.
Its a point explored at length in Rooney's Gold, the biography by John Sweeney which the player's lawyers have issued their warnings about: that a sanitised Rooney with none of the old rough spots is an unwelcome prospect, creating a shadow of the man in whose hands the nation's hopes now rest.Reuse content