James Lawton: Rooney shares Pele's gift for turning a match on its head

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It was hard to imagine, as you walked out of the Estadio da Luz this week, that, at 18, Wayne Rooney could have done more than carry England into the quarter-finals of the second most important competition in world football - or that his grateful manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, hadn't been touched by hysteria when he likened the boy to the teenaged Pele, the greatest player in the history of football.

It was hard to imagine, as you walked out of the Estadio da Luz this week, that, at 18, Wayne Rooney could have done more than carry England into the quarter-finals of the second most important competition in world football - or that his grateful manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, hadn't been touched by hysteria when he likened the boy to the teenaged Pele, the greatest player in the history of football.

On both counts, however, the propositions grew strong in the unforgettable velvet night. Yes, Rooney had flown beyond even the match-winning glory of his two brilliantly taken goals and the moment of stunning vision - and perfect execution - with which he brought to an end Paul Scholes' three-year battle to score again for England. And, yes, Eriksson's comparison with the Black Pearl did have a certain validity.

It lived because, at any age, you can only inflict yourself on your surroundings to the extent of your ability and, against a Croatian team which until the 40th minute held a lead and some firing of hope, Rooney's talent simply consumed the match. He announced himself, for the second time in four days, a match-winner of the rarest breed.

He also gave to England a gift which no football nation in the world has needed more desperately these last few years of ever rising hype.

What Rooney did was define quite precisely what it is that makes the truly exceptional player. It is the capacity to take over a match, to shape it to your will and inflict all of your talent. It is to lift your team to a victory that would not have been possible without you. The young Pele did it against Sweden in the 1958 World Cup final. At more advanced ages, Maradona did it in Mexico in 1986, carrying Argentina to a World Cup and Zinedine Zidane accomplished the same feat for France six years ago. George Best, the senses boomed as Rooney went about his work on Monday, had announced his own talent in an earlier form of the Estadio da Luz 38 years ago for Manchester United in a European Cup tie.

Yes, of course, Rooney has to stand the test of time. He has to do it against teams of higher quality than Croatia. He has to survive the blitz of attention, the workings of agents positioning him for maximum profit. He has to avoid becoming a piece of hugely marketable young meat. He has to show us he is a constant star rather than one that shoots across the sky. But then, already, he has done that vital work of clearing in our minds the difference between certain kinds of football gifts and the hardest, most important of them all - the means to prove that you can win matches, and restate your greatness.

For several years there has been loose talk in England of a generation of world-beaters: David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and the most underrated of them, Paul Scholes, have been touted as players capable of beating the highest class of opposition. No doubt all of them have considerable gifts, but that vital spark of transcending talent, that capacity to win a game and carry the team on their own shoulders, where is the consistent evidence on the international stage?

For the longest time Beckham has been hugely elevated for his ability to kick a dead ball and produce arguably the most consistent service from the right flank. But for England has he ever touched the authority of Rooney in his last three - yes, three - games? In the opening match against France, remember, it was Rooney's second-half assault that most undermined the reigning champions, forcing them to concede a penalty at the most damaging phase of the game. The answer to the question about a comparable impact by Beckham is an emphatic no.

There were astonishing levels of hype when Beckham rescued the World Cup qualifying game with Greece at Old Trafford nearly three years ago. But what has he produced of great significance in an England shirt since that scampering, 90-minute effort of will, if not outstanding performance, crowned by a superbly taken free-kick? Nothing, vaguely, to match the impact of Rooney in these championship finals - or at Sunderland last year, when he lifted a faltering England to victory over the Turks. After the French game here Beckham was pilloried for missing that penalty, which was ironic in that he had been England's most effective midfielder in the second half, vitally holding the ball and achieving some of the time and control which, with proper support, might just have held off the final collapse.

Since then, though, Beckham has drifted into the irrelevance which marked the second half of his season with Real Madrid. The England midfield has been the least effective part of the team. Gerrard continues to be eye-catching, but serious analysis of his work reveals far more show than effect. Scholes has looked jaded as games have worn on and Frank Lampard, despite his late goal on Monday, has been far from the driving force that so often invigorated Chelsea.

Up front, Michael Owen - the most honest of England players - has lost confidence in a way that has been terrible to see, most notably when he tried to chip the Croatian keeper Tomislav Butina. An Owen feeling good about himself, the one who burst on to the international scene so dramatically in the 1998 World Cup at the age Rooney is today, would not have dreamed of such a delicate touch when the youngster played him in with a magnificent reverse pass. He would have seen the whites of Butina's eyes before delivering the sword stroke. However, Owen's value, which has never been hyped in the way of Beckham's and to a lesser but not unappreciable extent, Gerrard's, remains self-evident. He still has an aura, is still making space for his scalding partner, and he linked beautifully for Rooney's unanswerable second goal.

Unquestionably, though, it is the Everton player who is the basis of England's most legitimate hopes as they go into a hugely testing quarter-final with Portugal tomorrow.

He has come to represent, in his hurtling progress through these finals, exactly that difference between achievement and promise, performance and reputation.

In all of this the victim is the vastly inflated reputation of Beckham. For years he has trailed his ambition to operate in the middle of the field; it happened in Madrid, and became a bust. At no time have his gifts been clinically analysed by those who have talked so gushingly of his status as a truly world-class player. His deficiencies man-on-man, his lack of the vital ability of a midfielder to go by a player, his relatively poor mobility, have all been ignored in favour of his undoubted brilliance with the dead ball, his crossing and, when he has time, passing. But do these qualities really represent football greatness? The debate, so obscured by an incessant flow of publicity and often risible tributes to his value as a brand name, has never been conducted with absolute values to the fore.

Such fudging, though, is no longer possible. It has been swept away by the sheer weight of Rooney's contribution to the English cause.

So far his sound bites would not sustain an anorexic cat, let alone a whole industry of hype. He has, simply and gloriously, gone out and done it. His performance on Monday night was nothing less than sumptuous. It grew before our eyes in a mesmerising rhythm. It had all the ingredients that shape the difference between winning and losing: penetration, vision, power, the most delicate of touches and, suffusing it all, a sublime self-belief. It was possible to highlight half a dozen moments of supreme facility; both goals were beautifully taken, his passing was acute and often inspired but nothing was so arresting as the vision which inspired the header he sent into the path of Scholes for the opening goal. Long before he was withdrawn, his dominance over every aspect of the match was unchallenged.

It was also, rather movingly, acknowledged by the Croatian midfielder Niko Kovac, whose early goal had put so much pressure on England. As Rooney ran by him on his way to the touchline, Kovac instinctively thrust out his hand. That, if Rooney is wise, will always rate as the most meaningful tribute when he looks back to the days when he first emerged as a major player.

What Rooney's opponent was saying was that ultimately he had made all resistance futile. He had been too strong, too brilliant, to counter. At 18 he had shown what it is to be a truly great player. It means, surely, that, from now on in England, mere imitations will be seen in an entirely new light.

Wonder of Rooney: Eriksson Likened him to the greatest player ever. So how do they compare?

WAYNE ROONEY

Full name: Wayne Rooney. Age: 18. Height: 5ft 10in. Weight: 12st 7lb. Nickname: Roo, Roonaldo (but only to the tabloids; Wayne to everyone else). Birthplace: Croxteth, Liverpool.

Family links with sport: Father Wayne was amateur boxer. Brother Graham still is. Claims to be distant relative of Bob Fitzsimmons, 19th century world heavyweight champion.

Number of matches: 72. Number of goals: 19. Internationals: 16. International goals: 9. Number of goals in first international tournament: 4 so far (Euro 2004). Number of senior titles won: 0.

Government jobs: Nil. But see how quickly Tony Blair sprints across the tarmac to welcome him home.

Paid to advertise: Nike boot deal worth £2m. Paid £1.5m to endorse Ford, although he only passed his driving test at the third attempt. Publicist Max Clifford estimated that Rooney could earn £20m in the next three years, "if marketed as a character, a jack-the-lad".

Favourite food: Fish and chips. Also partial to the occasional lollipop.

Number of wives: 0. Number of children: 0. Glamorous girlfriend: Colleen McCulloch. She may have been starring in the school production of Bugsy Malone when Rooney made his England debut, but she is said to be more streetwise than he is when dealing with real life.

Highest price for a signed shirt: Several thousand pounds.

Number of civil wars stopped: 0. The opposite is true. When celebrating Colleen's 18th birthday in a Liverpool pub, a fight broke out between the two families.

Famous political fan: Derek Hatton, who was leader of Liverpool Council when he was born in 1985.

What they said about him: "I just hope that he is allowed to remain focused on his performance and that the only pressure that he has to carry is that which he puts upon himself."

Pele, speaking at the Fifa 100 exhibition.

What they say about themselves: "Any 18-year-old would want to swap places with me."

PELE

Full name: Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Age: 63. Height: 5ft 8in. Weight: 10st 8lb. Nickname: O Rei ("The King"); Pele is a nickname but the man himself has no idea what it means. Birthplace: Tres Coracoes, Brasilia.

Family links with sport: Father was a footballer, son Edinho plays in goal for Santos.

Number of matches: 1363. Number of matches played at Goodison Park: 2. Number of goals: 1283. Internationals: 92. International goals: 97. Number of goals in first major tournament: 6 (1958 World Cup). Number of World Cups won: 3. Number of senior titles won: 25.

Government jobs: Minister for Sport in Brazil from1995 to 1998. Sacked after attempting to attack corruption in the domestic game.

Paid to advertise: Mastercard, Coca-Cola, Nokia, Viagra.

Favourite food: Xinxim (chicken breast cooked in cream with peanuts, crayfish and lime).

Number of wives: 2. Number of children: 6 (two by first marriage, two by second, two illegitimate). Glamorous girlfriend: Xuxa Meneghel, Playboy centrefold and children's television presenter. Two jobs are separate, obviously.

Highest price paid for a shirt: $220,850 (£129,152) for the number 10 jersey worn in the 1970 World Cup final.

Number of civil wars stopped: One. In 1967 the Nigerian Civil War was halted for 48 hours to watch Pele play an exhibition in Lagos.

Political fans: When not bombing Cambodia back to the Stone Age, Henry Kissinger went into rhapsodies, even penning an article to Time in his honour.

What they said about him: "He will be the greatest footballer in the world." Waldemar de Brito, who introduced Pele to Santos as a 15-year-old.

What they say about themselves: "I think of Pele as a gift from God. We have billions and billions of people in the world, but we have one Beethoven, one Bach, one Michelangelo and one Pele."

Comparison by Tim Rich

WAYNE'S WORLD WHAT THE PAPERS SAY ABOUT ROONEY

Super Rooney, l'Inghilterra vola

[Super Rooney, England take off]

Gazzetta Dello Sport, Italy

König Rooney!

[King Rooney!]

Bild, Germany

Engleska u cetvrtfinalu, Rooney koban i za Hrvatsku

[England through to the quarter-finals, Rooney beats Croatia]

Dnevnik, Croatia

Encore signé Rooney

[Rooney scores again]

L'Equipe, France

Emmenée par son joyau Wayne Rooney, l'Angleterre est en quart de finale

[Carried along by their jewel, England are in the quarter-finals]

Le Temps, Switzerland

Des Bleus piano, des Anglais crescendo

[The Blues softly, the English loudly]

Figaro, France, on qualification from Group B. It continues, on Rooney: "He is certainly the revelation of Euro 2004. This young striker is a veritable phenomenon."

"In two games Rooney has already justified the almost unreachable price that Everton have put on him."

O Jogo, Portugal

"Portugal are playing at home and have the quality to fell the English Goliath. But they should be wary. Rooney can scent blood and promises new surprises."

Marca, Spain

"Rooney is hungry for success and there is no better medicine to combat the windy world of football."

Marca

"It will take some creative thinking from [the Portugal coach] Luis Felipe Scolari to end the insolence of this phenomenal adolescent from Everton."

L'Equipe

"Only 18 but already supremely important to a major football nation such as England."

De Telegraaf, Netherlands

"From China to the moon, wherever there is life, they must have heard about Wayne Rooney. He is the English youth who, at an age when most soccer professionals are politely working their apprenticeships, is tearing up the scoring records in Euro 2004."

International Herald Tribune

"Gerrard is a diesel motor with powerful cylinders, who tests the patience and resistance of the opposition to its limits."

O Jogo

"Ashley Cole and David James appear as uncertain as the weather in London."

Gazzetta Dello Sport, Italy

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