Rooney: Let's hope Ronaldo misses the World Cup
No love lost as striker admits he would like to see Portugal fail to qualify and hopes to replace old team-mate as world's best player
Friday 09 October 2009
They were friends once, you suspect, but there is only so much comradeship that can survive at the sharp end of professional football. Wayne Rooney did not have to think for a moment this week when he was asked whether he would care if Cristiano Ronaldo was not at the World Cup finals next summer.
"I'm not really too bothered to be honest if they [Portugal] are there or not," Rooney said. "Obviously we have to concentrate on ourselves. It would be nice to see Portugal not there because the last two tournaments they've knocked us out. We've got to concentrate on what we've got to do."
This was Rooney speaking without the control of his assorted PRs demanding complete control of every utterance, be it on behalf of a soft drink, a PlayStation game or a sportswear company. Freed from the shackles within the England camp – rather like Fabio Capello has freed him in the team itself – Rooney can be engaging and opinionated when the mood takes him.
The season is still only two months old but Rooney is already under no illusions that it is he who will be Manchester United's chief creative force in Ronaldo's absence. It was ever thus for England but at least against Ukraine tomorrow and Belarus four days later, with England safely qualified for the World Cup, the pressure is off. With nine goals already in the campaign, Rooney has done his bit.
Back to Ronaldo, whose Portugal must beat Hungary tomorrow to have any chance of qualifying for South Africa. And then there is Lionel Messi, whose Argentina are struggling as well. If those two failed to make it, the stage would be that much clearer for Rooney to establish himself next summer as the world's best footballer. It is a nebulous concept to say the least but despite Fifa's attempt to make it an official competition, there is always a prevailing unofficial consensus on the world's best footballer.
Rooney had given it some thought. "Of course it [being regarded as the best in the world] motivates you, but it's not something I would go on about or keep talking about. Players are different, but of course that's what you want to be. You want to be the best you can. But I think it's important that you concentrate on the way you play for your team first of all. I've always said that if you win personal honours, that's great, but it's important that you concentrate on the team first."
The Ronaldo question goes to the heart of Rooney's season and the way in which the next nine months might unfold. You get the impression that Rooney retains some affection for his old team-mate but only some. Now that Ronaldo has left United, that old bond which held them together despite Ronaldo's part in Rooney's red card at the 2006 World Cup finals is weaker.
Rooney will still say, generously, that Ronaldo is the best player in the world. "It's clear for everyone," Rooney said. "He scores goals. I've watched his first few games for Madrid and he seems to have improved again." But he does add with a grin. "He's passing the ball a lot more as well."
Ask Ronaldo who he thought the best footballer in the world was and he would probably give the same answer: himself, of course. Rooney came to accept Ronaldo's way. "When he was at United, people said 'He doesn't run back, he doesn't do this,' but look at what he did going forward. As a team we had to realise that if he was as good as that going forward, we had to make up for it by going back. That's what happened and in the last three years we were very successful doing it."
The "going back" responsibility was, in part, shouldered by Rooney. Without Ronaldo United are weaker but Rooney is back in the central striker's position at United that he plays for Capello with England. It is, he said, his ideal role and when he talks about it he refers to "me and Steven [Gerrard]" and the freedom that the two of them have to switch roles throughout the game.
It is a sign of Rooney's growing maturity that it is now possible to ask him a question about his sometimes suspect temper without him looking like he might, well, lose his temper. Referring to his stamp on Ricardo Carvalho that saw him dismissed in the quarter-final against Portugal in 2006 he makes a rare concession. Rooney has – and still does – maintain that it was an accident but now he admits that on replays it "does look like I've stamped".
There have been no bookings for Rooney in this qualifying campaign, which is remarkable given his record. "When it [the temper] is there, people speak about it. And when it's not there, people speak about how much it's gone," he said. "To be honest, it's not something I really think about too much. I just try and play and do the best I can.
"Although you might still play well, if you don't score then, as a forward, the frustration builds up. I'm not saying it makes you do things or stupid tackles, but you do get frustrated. You need to get that balance right and it's important you do because if you go over the top, you'll miss a lot of games through suspension."
At the moment Rooney is, in the language of the therapist, in a good place. Rooney Jnr is due this month; Rooney senior is England's great hope come next summer. As ever, he is probably only one contentious refereeing decision or cunning opponent away from another explosion but it has been good while it has lasted. He smiled when it was pointed out to him that Diego Maradona exited the 1982 World Cup finals with a red card and came back to win it four years later.
Turning 24, a father-in-waiting and the man upon whom much of the nation's hopes rest is a lot different to life as a teen prodigy. "At 16 there's no fear whatsoever – you just play and enjoy it," Rooney said. "But the more games you play, more things come into it, what's going to happen if you win or lose. You think about the game a lot more."
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