"Have I toyed with the idea of making Wayne Rooney captain?" Sir Alex Ferguson settled into his armchair and considered the question. "Toyed is a good word, but I don't think he's ready."
The Manchester United manager was speaking in Kuala Lumpur in July as his team prepared for the kind of game England indulged in the Khalifa Stadium last night – a lucrative exhibition match in a very foreign field. Just as he did with David Beckham, Ferguson could see Rooney as many things but not as a leader of men.
It was hard to tell if the boy from Croxteth was inspired by the armband Fabio Capello handed him, because Rooney would have been inspired by a kickabout on the beaches that in Doha are hand-raked every morning.
No footballer since Paul Gascoigne has so obviously relished playing, although if Rooney wished to fulfil an ambition to captain his country, he might not have chosen to lead out an England side of whom only Gareth Barry could be called a first-choice international in an emirate on the Arabian Gulf, and he would not have wanted to lose. But he would have hand-picked Brazil as his opponents.
Gascoigne was a non-starter as captain, and not just because of the "Fuck off Norway" interview he gave to Norwegian television. And so only a few years ago was Rooney. Part of the job of a captain is to inspire the men around him, something Bryan Robson and Bobby Moore achieved effortlessly while relaying instructions from the bench, but at Everton the teenaged Rooney was almost astonishingly inarticulate.
At a press conference called at Goodison to announce a new contract for their golden boy, his manager, David Moyes, was incensed beyond reason by Rooney's refusal to stop chewing gum or swigging water from a bottle during the interviews. Yet latterly Rooney has grown up to the extent that before Manchester United travelled to Chelsea last weekend, Ferguson remarked that he was sick of answering questions about Rooney's "maturity".
Throughout most of a hot, barren Arabian night, Brazil were so effortlessly in control that his captain might as well have joined Capello on the bench, and perhaps it was a sign of this maturity that Rooney's temper did not snap, as it has so often before.
However, as a pointer to the long term, this was a disturbing evening. As Glenn Hoddle noted when making Alan Shearer his captain, there is something to be said for making your best player captain. Take out the men who have only one World Cup left – Terry, Ferdinand, James, Beckham, Gerrard and Lampard – and Rooney is, in terms of ability, as far ahead of the rest as he was at Copplehouse Juniors.
The men on display against Brazil represent the future, but while Milner, Upson, Brown, Defoe, Barry and Bent are useful international players, none is remotely world-class.
The England of the future will depend heavily on Rooney, Theo Walcott and perhaps Owen Hargreaves. In 1972, as Manchester United's decline became glaringly obvious, George Best went to Sir Matt Busby and asked the manager to make him captain and build a new Old Trafford side around him. Busby refused, and Best quit. Whether or not they win the World Cup, England will have to rebuild, probably around Rooney.
England in the past year have beaten Germany, drawn with Holland and lost to Spain and Brazil, which forms a pretty fair reflection of where England stand under Capello. In the November before the 2006 World Cup, England played another South American side – Argentina – in another tax haven, Geneva, and won 3-2. A hope that died in the German summer that followed was alive in Switzerland: that England were on the verge of something remarkable. Last night in a land where oil has allowed fantasies to be created, there was rather more reality in the air.