James Lawton: Comparing Walcott with Pele or Rooney deserves only the maximum contempt

One hero of 1966 said Eriksson was breaking basic rules. 'I'm dumbfounded'
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The Independent Football

Sven Goran Eriksson can call on any justification he likes, but whatever he does he should not even breathe the name Pele. Then a decision of astounding irresponsibility would be compounded by rank dishonesty.

Whatever position is taken on Eriksson's move to take to a World Cup a 17-year-old of total inexperience in top-flight football, who has yet to command enough confidence in his club manager to play in his first team, there must be one severe caution. It is founded not in wild, hopeful speculation but the cold reality of experience.

It says that anyone who dares to compare Eriksson's selection of Theo Walcott with that of the Brazil coach, Vicente Feola, when he picked Pele, who was also 17, for a starring role in Sweden in 1958, needs to be led off to a quiet room in the company of men dressed in white coats.

No, let's not play around with words. The theory here is that Eriksson has committed a scarcely believable act of football illiteracy. He has broken the most fundamental rules of the game by investing so much in a boy who has not yet had one chance to show how he might cope in a real match with real pressures and against the quality and experience of players likely to be encountered in a World Cup. Comparisons with Pele, or even Wayne Rooney when he galvanised the England team so brilliantly in his first game, have to be discounted with maximum contempt.

Pele was not unleashed as some long-shot secret weapon when he played in Brazil's third game 1958 against the Soviet Union. He was not a kid who had come tumbling out of a shanty town. He would played in the first match of the tournament, against Austria, but for injury. Nor would this have been some journey into the unknown. Pele had played his first game for Brazil a year earlier against Argentina, a 16-year-old of proven brilliance for Santos, for whom he had playing for a year. Pele, a substitute, performed in the Maracana before a vast crowd and scored a goal in a 1-2 defeat. A week later he played in São Paulo and scored twice in a victory, also against Argentina.

Pele's ability to play against the toughest of professionals had been established for two years when he made his first breathtaking impact on the world game. This was the reality that makes any attempt to compare young Walcott's situation with that of Pele or Rooney quite pitiful in its lack of truth.

Rooney's astonishing maturity was a fact of English football when he transformed the national team in a European qualifying game against Turkey in Sunderland. Arsène Wenger, Walcott's manager at Arsenal, who has apparently been so instrumental in talking Eriksson into his bizarre gamble, was already on the record as saying that Rooney was the most impressive young English player he had ever seen.

So why should we not automatically believe him in the case of Walcott? For the most fundamental of reasons. Wenger had been persuaded by Rooney not in some youth game or practice match but in the heat of grown-up, real life football when the Merseyside protégé had scored a magnificent goal against an Arsenal team which at the time were supposedly unbeatable.

The word yesterday was that Wenger has assured Eriksson that the only reason Walcott has not so far played for Arsenal was that he had felt no pressure to play him, no requirement to inject him into an attack campaigning for a place in the Champions' League final and a vital fourth qualifying position to ensure European football for his club's first season in the new Emirates Stadium.

Let's think our way through this one. It doesn't take much time. Walcott is good enough to be one of England's four specialist front players in Germany this summer despite the fact that the other one is the thinly experienced and debatably talented Peter Crouch and the other two, Rooney and Michael Owen, are widely considered in professional circles to have next to no chance of operating at anything approaching their normal match sharpness in Germany this summer. Against this chilling reality, Walcott has not been compelling enough to demand a place in the Arsenal first team.

One member of England's World Cup team of 1966, who requested anonymity, said he could only conclude that Eriksson was taking risks, breaking fundamental rules, that he wouldn't touch if his future employment depended on World Cup result. "I'm dumbfounded," said the World Cup hero. His team-mate George Cohen was asked if Sir Alf Ramsey could possibly have made such a decision. Cohen thought for a moment. Then he said, "Not in a million years."

There should no confusion here in the matter of boldness and something that belongs in an altogether different category. Ramsey was bold in an extraordinary way before he won England's only World Cup. He jettisoned wingers. He left out Jimmy Greaves, the greatest striker in the land, and arguably one of the best the world had ever seen, because he could not rely on his fitness. So, risking the ire of the nation, he sent in Geoff Hurst and his reward is history - the most glorious in English football.

Eriksson was praised for "boldness" when he elevated the 17-year-old Rooney, but what was so brave about picking a player who had performed so brilliantly in the Premiership, who had proved his vision and his nerve and his physical maturity? Anything less would have been the opposite of courage. It would have been an inexplicable cowardice.

None of this is to question the potential of young Walcott. It was strong enough to excite Wenger to the point of paying out £5m with the promise of more than double that if the youngster progresses from the status of contender to champion. But then why was the fee staggered like that? For the most impeccable of reasons. Promise and achievement are vastly different stretches of football terrain. One old pro of great distinction drew on some basic experience yesterday. He said: "Ask any pro in the world, anywhere, and get them to tell you about how many world-class performances they have seen in a practice match on the training field. And then ask how many times that has naturally translated in great performances when it matters. There is only one way of measuring the difference, of knowing if a lion of a practice match will not be a mouse when the real action starts. It's by seeing if the two match up, and how can anyone say that of this boy? They cannot because he has not played in real conditions, and until that happens no one, not even a judge of Wenger's quality and achievement, can really know. This is what is so staggering about yesterday's decision. It defies one of the most basic rules of the game."

Certainly, it was one that Walter Winterbottom, Ramsey's revered predecessor, was not prepared to break in the tournament that announced Pele to the World 48 years ago. The young Bobby Charlton did not play in a single match because he was considered too "inexperienced". He had survived the Munich aircrash and played beautifully for Manchester United, having made his senior debut nearly two years earlier. But he was too "green" to play for England in that World Cup.

That was a miscalculation that inflamed Manchester United's assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy, who was in charge of the Welsh team in the tournament. "It drove me mad seeing Bobby idle - I really felt we could have won if we had him in the team." It was another kind of madness to that which we witnessed yesterday. Charlton was 20 years old and a proven player, an international who had grown up alongside the likes of Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor. Walcott is a jewel who Wenger believes can be polished into a player of great beauty and success.

But is there any vague chance that the process will start in the Champions' League final in Paris next week? Has Wenger been prepared to astonish the football world as Eriksson did yesterday? No, of course not. But such a gamble is apparently all right if it is made on behalf of the World Cup hopes of the nation. There is no logic here, no precedent. Did someone say Pele? Did someone mention courage? They should get a grip and examine the facts.