Wayne Rooney has been called many things in the past week after his explosion of anger at Fulham, but Fabio Capello's assessment of him as a future England captain is probably the most surprising.
Rooney, who will win his 50th cap tonight in England's World Cup qualifier against Ukraine, provoked intense criticism from all quarters for his petulant antics at Craven Cottage 11 days ago. He threw the ball at the referee Phil Dowd and then when he was sent off he punched a corner flag in a fit of frustration.
Even his performance in Saturday's 4-0 friendly victory over Slovakia, when he scored twice, could not dispel genuine fears that his suspect temperament will let England down at a crucial moment, as it did with his red card in the 2006 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Portugal. Yet Capello, the England manager, only days after calling the combustible striker a "crazy, crazy man", even if it was with a smile, claimed yesterday that Rooney is genuine captaincy material.
Capello, a man renowned for demanding discipline from even the most famous names under his charge, rarely lavishes praise on his players. However, he launched a passionate defence of Rooney by comparing him to Raul, the Real Madrid captain whom Capello first coached as a teenager. Like Raul, Real's all-time leading goalscorer, Capello said that Rooney was a natural "leader on the pitch" despite being one of the squad's younger players at just 23 years old.
"Rooney is like Raul, for the movement, for the passion, for the leadership on the pitch," Capello said. "Rooney is very similar because when I started the first time at Madrid, when I was manager there, he was 19, very young. But he was a leader in the team. Could Rooney be England captain? Why not? Why not? You'll have to wait for the answer. We have a good captain [John Terry] at the moment."
Rooney's importance to England is greater than ever tonight, with Capello struggling for fit strikers as the injury problems mount yet again. The Tottenham Hotspur forward Darren Bent, himself a late replacement for injured strikers Emile Heskey and Carlton Cole in the squad, pulled out of training because of a knee strain and was sent to recover with Spurs. West Ham United will also be working on their injured striker: Cole, whose groin injury is worse than first feared, will be out of action for three weeks.
Gabriel Agbonlahor was called into the squad yesterday but Capello said Peter Crouch will lead the line tonight, with Rooney and Steven Gerrard in behind him. It will be Crouch's first England start under Capello. England's only other change from the side that started against Slovakia on Saturday is likely to be Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand replacing West Ham's Matthew Upson in the centre of defence.
Capello also revealed an intriguing conversation with Sir Alex Ferguson, soon after the United manager paid Everton an initial £20m for Rooney after the striker had made his sensational impact at Euro 2004. According to Capello, who encountered Ferguson at a coaching conference in Switzerland, the Scot was still concerned he had overpaid for Rooney.
"I saw Sir Alex at a Uefa meeting in Nyon," the England manager said. "He said, 'Fabio, I am crazy. I have just spent an awful lot of money on a very young player.' Now he is very happy. He spent a lot of money on a very important player."
With Rooney in his best form for England since the metatarsal injury that ended his participation in Euro 2004, Ferdinand said his United team-mate epitomised the standard that Capello has set the England side. "He shows what the manager is trying to get out of the team," Ferdinand said. "Wayne was our best player by quite a distance on Saturday. He was doing the things the manager asks of him."
Capello expects his England side to follow the win over Slovakia by beating Ukraine, who are enjoying a run of eight games unbeaten under coach Alexei Mikhailichenko and are the only other Group Six side not to have lost. "We must make Wembley a place where other teams feel they have to go into a bunker," the Italian said.Reuse content