The likelihood of Wayne Rooney being anything other than a diversionary sideshow as England attempt to win the World Cup began to look increasingly like a nationwide delusion yesterday.
Just a day after the results of a scan on the injured striker's foot were greeted with "Wayne goes to Germany" headlines, a gloom of realism settled on the few rational minds being applied to the issue. This was in stark contrast to the optimism that saw tens of thousands of patriots rush to bookies in the past 24 hours with enough cash to make England 13-2 second favourites, and the perhaps more balanced minds that logged on to HealRooney.com to try to mend the broken metatarsal by the power of remote thought.
More practical souls, meanwhile, were absorbing the following dispiriting timetable: Rooney will not be able to kick a ball until after his next scan on 14 June, the results of which will not be known until the day of England's second group match; and the following round's games on 24/25 June are a mere eight weeks after the injury, the same period that marked David Beckham's return after an identical problem at the last World Cup.
Yesterday, Rooney's club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, was reported as saying Beckham came back too soon at that tournament: "He wasn't fit enough to play, to be honest." Sir Alex is the man ultimately responsible for Rooney's treatment, the scan will take place in Manchester, and the decision on whether he is fit to return to Germany is, in effect, Manchester United's, although it will be presented as a joint one with England. Recovery from a broken fourth metatarsal can be 10 weeks, which takes one up to 8 July, the day before the final.
Yet inside England's Rooney recovery tunnel, the end of which has still to be blessed with light, there were at least signs that his two managers had developed an agreed line. Ferguson, thought previously by some to have been less than enthusiastic in his hopes Rooney would play, told his club's TV channel: "We are hoping and praying but the problem is because Wayne is young, he doesn't feel any pain. This is a dangerous area because the scan quite clearly shows the fracture is not healed." And Sven Goran-Eriksson added, in his usual emollient, low-key way: "There is no problem between Manchester United and England. The only problem is that Wayne Rooney has a bad foot."
Rooney will continue to receive treatment in Manchester and this week will be joined there by the rest of the national squad ahead of friendly matches against Hungary and Jamaica. On 5 June, England fly to Baden-Baden, their World Cup base, to prepare for their opening game on 10 June against Paraguay.
The day before that match is the official start of the tournament, and so also the final deadline for any squad changes. Thus is exemplified the bind that Eriksson is in. If he doesn't take Rooney, an outcry would erupt that he is prejudging the player's recovery and eliminating what could possibly be a prize asset in the closing stages. Yet, by naming Rooney and being saddled with a squad deadline before the final scan, Eriksson risks having in his squad a player who is merely the world's highest-paid mascot.
Hence, given what is at stake, the player's treatment has been surrounded by barely suppressed hysteria. Ever since he was crocked, in the game against Chelsea on 29 April, his every move (or non-move) has been logged, analysed and subjected to endless opinionating by men who would not normally be able to tell a metatarsal from a macaroon.
Leader in the media own-goal of the month competition so far is The Sun story of eight days ago which proclaimed: "Wayne Rooney sparked massive celebrations by revealing he will be fit for England's OPENING World Cup game".
Within a few days, Dr Mike Stone, the Manchester United doctor in charge of his treatment, was fired, and the febrile atmosphere meant the two events were rapidly connected. The doctor was sacked for leaking to the press, it was said, or, alternately, because he gave Rooney permission to take to the dance floor at the Beckhams' party last weekend. In the end, and somewhat prosaically, it was reported that Dr Stone went from the club because of a row about his outside work with Olympic athletes.
And so, as windows across the nation fill with England flags and pennants in red and white flutter from a million cars, the attention paid to this small bone in one young Liverpudlian's foot grows and grows.
As do sales of wide-screen televisions. More than £1 billion extra is expected to be spent on them before the tournament. Dixons and Currys are reporting the sale of a wide-screen TV every 15 seconds. There should be none of the absenteeism that marked the last World Cup however. England's earliest weekday kick off is 5pm.
Such is the interest globally in Rooney that yesterday the results of a routine medical scan in a rainy northern English city were reported by such unlikely football-following papers as the Calcutta Telegraph, Houston Chronicle, People's Daily in China, and the Mumbai Mirror.Reuse content