James Lawton: Helguera blind to Rooney's glorious talent

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These are the days here when Madrilenos, who roast in summer and wither when the winter wind comes off the Guadarrama, tell themselves it is good to be alive. The air is as crisp as the very best Rioja and the sun is bouncing off the old buildings in the Puerto del Sol.

These are the days here when Madrilenos, who roast in summer and wither when the winter wind comes off the Guadarrama, tell themselves it is good to be alive. The air is as crisp as the very best Rioja and the sun is bouncing off the old buildings in the Puerto del Sol.

All we need on the café fronts where the toreros and their agents used to gather in those days when the celebrity crowd around Zidane and Ronaldo and Figo would have been seen as invaders from another planet, is a full-blown football controversy.

Still, we have to raise a glass to Ivan Helguera, the Real Madrid and Spain defender, for trying. It was an attack of some promise in this week of England's visit to the Bernabeu as he levelled his sights on the English superstar who, for all his talent, is such an under-achiever and is so ill-tempered and over-rated, he has become a liability to his country, if not his club. Strangely enough, though, it was Wayne Rooney he had in mind.

The trouble is that absurdity, as Boris Johnson discovered when he visited Rooney's home town recently, makes for only the briefest debate. No doubt Helguera is right about Rooney's often disturbingly short fuse, as is the former England cricket captain Mike Atherton when he complains about being stood up, along with a bunch of expectant schoolchildren, for the best part of a day by our somewhat socially inept prodigy. But a liability? No, perilous though many sound judges may consider his future, he is quite the opposite of that.

He is the hope and the glory, we saw again at Newcastle on Sunday, and only the incorrigibly pessimistic would dispute there are still plenty of reasons to believe he will indeed prove the ultimate catalyst in the thrilling process that is turning English football into the world centre for a generation of utterly exceptional talent.

Helguera might have made the distinction had he not been so wrapped up in the efforts of his great club to rationalise the last few years of galactico madness. When he talks of under-achievement, what does he really think about Ronaldo, Zidane, Figo, Raul and Beckham finishing fourth in La Liga and whimpering out of the Champions' League?

Maybe Helguera missed the great eruption of Rooney in the European Championship when Spain, yet again, were obliged to catch an early plane home from a major tournament. Or before that, when Rooney, in his first competitive international match, on a night when Beckham was emoting himself into another yellow card, just about single-handedly lifted England on to another level in the tricky qualifier with Turkey in Sunderland.

Rooney, Helguera the failed football polemicist may not have grasped, is 19 years old. It may well be necessary to remind ourselves of this when his bulk and his genius appears at the Bernabeu for the first time here tomorrow night. The fact is that no one, not some of the greatest footballers the world has seen, men who made this arena their own terrain, Di Stefano, Puskas, Kopa, and now Zidane and Ronaldo, ever came to the stadium at such an early age trailing such promise.

Why, indeed, should anyone doubt Rooney's potential to pour ridicule on the scepticism of Ivan Helguera? Those who do, cannot have seen the impact he made on another great football battleground a few months ago, when he walked in the footsteps of George Best in Lisbon's Estado da Luz. We have to suspect that both the achievement and the promise of Rooney has pushed back the limits of the way we see the place of young players in today's game.

There is no doubt that Arsène Wenger, who has maybe the greatest eye for unformed talent in the history of the game, was stunned by Rooney when he shattered Arsenal's unbeaten run two seasons ago. The boy's winner didn't so much shape a match as the future.

Now Wenger unleashes the remarkable ability of teenagers like Francesc Fabregas and Aturo Lupoli, stolen from the advanced football cultures of Spain and Italy, and at Chelsea the all-knowing Jose Mourinho shares the general awe at the progress of the 20-year-old Arjen Robben.

If there is one sadness in this wealth of youth, which makes the Premiership - if it ever learns how to defend properly and achieve a higher purpose than pleasing the football illiterates who drooled over the breakdown in competence at White Hart Lane last weekend - potentially the light of the football world, it is that for every Fabregas and Lupoli, there are two young Englishmen denied a chance to prosper at the more rarified levels of their national game. This, of course, is unlikely to deter Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, the £12m investor in the Portuguese teenager Cristiano Ronaldo, and Mourinho from their scouring of the world. They have to win, so they will go wherever necessary to do so.

Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney continues to suggest that he may well become the best of all. His contribution to English football is already invaluable. It is not Rooney who is overrated but many who came before him, and in whom mere celebrity was mistaken for the highest quality of talent. Rooney promises the world and already he has delivered a considerable slice of it. It is thrilling just to think of him taking his bow in the Bernabeu here tomorrow night.