Rooney: All about the boy

Sven gets the point - England's progress depends on a team built around the lavish gifts of Rooney
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Even the match programme for Wednesday's finale of England's qualifying campaign had been adorned by a cover dedicated to his prowess bearing simply the words: Sheer Genius. Inside, among several commendations, Zico, the Brazil icon, now coach of Japan, spoke of him in the same breath as Pele. By the following day, the former England manager Glenn Hoddle had extravagantly claimed that his influence on the national side is comparable to that of Diego Maradona on Argentina or Michel Platini on France. Frank Lampard proclaimed him "a midfielder's dream... a one-off".

And so the superlatives beamed down on him, like shafts of autumn sun, interspersed by a brief downpour from the perma-quote Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, who deemed that he should be "called to order" over his bouts of indiscipline.

Not much pressure, then, Wayne. Simply arrest the trend of four decades of England footballing underachievement. And do it without baring those sharks' teeth of petulance.

Strangely, you suspect it won't weigh dauntingly heavily on him. Notwithstanding his capricious temperament, this is essentially a team man. He is a reluctant icon. Whether deified or denigrated, this gum-chewing, mas-sage parlour-visiting, profundity-issuing teenager (just) who somehow obligingly fulfils Blatter's stereotyping of modern footballers as "semi-educated, foul-mouthed players on pornographic amounts of money", is, you suspect, unmoved by all such observations.

He appears to possess next to no ego, beyond the recognition that he is an unusually gifted sportsman. Mention "prima donna" to Rooney and he would probably imagine you were discussing an upmarket kebab shop. After Wednesday's 2-1 defeat of Poland, he is ushered warily down a microphone-toting phalanx of press representatives by an FA apparatchik, the intention to wean him off the breast of his family and advisers and on to the media bottle in the expectation that his personal development will benefit from such nourishment.

What you behold is not so much Superman but Scouse Kent, who no doubt yearns to be home with Cashcard Coleen rather than rehearsing phrases from the FA's bible of correctness. "My temperament's let me down in the past, and I want to try and improve on that," he is allowed to say, before being removed. "Tonight was the start." Then an afterthought: "I thought the ref [Kim Milton Nielsen] had a good game tonight."

Rooney had a decent one, too. The political game, that is. It doesn't come easy. But then unlike David Beckham, who through the folly of his actions against Austria found himself training with Real Madrid on Wednesday, not captaining his team, England's wunderkind is not attempting to enhance a brand or an image. He merely wishes to exploit the talent contained within those silver boots, and, just as importantly, between those prominent ears. As a boy, when he played football in the streets of Croxteth he wanted to be Michael Owen. Now he simply wants to be Gromit to Owen's Wallace. One of the lads. Not a jack-the-lad.

When Owen, questioned about the potency of their partnership, opined that "I think anyone would want to work with him", he could have been a builder, pencil behind the ear, talking about hiring a plumber; but, in a sense, whatever your trade, that rapport must exist.

"He had a cracking first half- hour, especially. He was everywhere, passing and flicking and shooting and making a nuisance of himself," Owen added. "I think we've got a decent understanding. We all realise that he's one of the gems in our team. When you've got a player like that, you've got to utilise him to the best of your ability."

What that entails is Rooney being accommodated in that area just behind Owen from where he can dictate the debate with the opposition - decidedly not on the flanks, where Sven Goran Eriksson has deployed him and where he can be as impotent, to the point of frustration, as Parliamentary back-benchers.

"I try to clear off and drag their defenders as far back to their own goal as possible and give him as much space in that hole where he is so effective," Owen said. "You could see tonight, the best thing he does is when he gets the ball, turns, dribbles, passes, shoots from long distance." The England vice-captain added, with a laugh: "He doesn't really enjoy what I do. I think we complement each other."

Owen, however, is sage enough to appreciate that Rooney will not haul England up to the summit of World Cup recognition single-handedly. When it was suggested to the Newcastle striker, who had earlier scored his 25th goal in 50 games for Eriksson, that his young accomplice's reputation alone was a Ronaldinho-like spectre in the minds of other teams, he retorted: "I like to think we have a few players like that. You don't win a World Cup if you've only got one player who's going to create a bit of magic. Look all over the pitch and we've got plenty of players who can turn a game. Look at tonight, with Frank Lampard's finish [for England's second goal]." He modestly refrains from emphasising his own part in that winner.

The world's coaches obviously concur with Owen's sentiments. Gerrard, Beckham, Rooney and Lampard are all included in a preliminary shortlist of 30 for Fifa's World Player of the Year, who will be announced in Zurich on 19 December.

Brazil have seven nominated. But while the pundits are already lying supine in their shadow, the Brazil coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, insists that "magic is not part of our vocabulary", adding: "We're not getting involved in this sort of talk. I want to hear words like efficiency, productivity, winning well, sweat, perspiration and talent."

He recognises that another World Cup triumph will require rather more than tantalising exhibitions of technique from Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Robinho and the rest. Similarly, Eriksson appreciates that he cannot entrust England's fortunes solely to one young man, sheer genius or not. It's just that, in seven months' time, he will be an exceptional standard-bearer with whom to go to war.

Winners & Losers: Rise of Prince, fall of Papa

SULLEY ALI MUNTARI: You've heard of Michael Essien. His Ghana team-mate Sulley Ali Muntari, 21, could be as good. Muntari (of Udinese) has the touch of a Kaka, the mongrel of an Edgar Davids.

LUKAS PODOLSKI: Described as "a young Wayne Rooney", despite being 20. Germany's "Prince Poldi" has sprung from obscurity to hit seven goals from 15 internationals.

SAMUEL ETO'O: In the fifth minute of added time Pierre Wome missed a penalty that would have seen Cameroon qualify. Eto'o, the prolific Barça striker, should have volunteered to take it. He didn't.

PAPA BOUBA DIOP: Scored in the last World Cup opener, against France. Now at Fulham, pays the price for Senegal not qualifying.

JAY-JAY OKACHA: Has been an inspiration for Bolton in the Premiership, but couldn't get the fancied Nigerians to Germany.

MATEJA KEZMAN: Ridiculed at Chelsea, the Serbia and Montenegro striker enjoyed the last laugh, his goal against Bosnia firing the Serbs through to the finals.

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