It was already as if someone had been walking through English football switching off the lights one by one and then suddenly Wayne Rooney was lying on the Stamford Bridge pitch crying out in acute pain. Embarrassment over the cosmic bungling of the Scolari affair had been replaced by something to strike at the heart of the sports nation.
Now our fear was that we faced something resembling a biblical curse. Rooney was out of the World Cup; that, you dreaded in your bones, was the terrible reality. First folly, now catastrophe, and where will it end?
This morning even the most cock-eyed optimist cannot escape the bleakest fear. It is that once again England's only World Cup success in 1966 is going to look ever more like some forlornly unattainable peak of history. Even if the most optimistic medical opinion is confirmed and Rooney is at least technically fit for the tournament, many will fear a repeat of the David Beckham saga in Japan at the last World Cup when he was plainly far below optimum levels of match sharpness.
Rooney's devastating mishap is only one of the problems facing the lame duck national coach, Sven Goran Eriksson. Michael Owen's chances of regaining full fitness took another setback at Newcastle at the weekend and hopes for the recovery of the Arsenal full-back Ashley Cole in time for the World Cup kick-off increasingly suggest that they, too, are coated in wishful thinking. But with respect to the valuable talent of such as Owen and Cole, these are inconveniences. The fall of Rooney would be a central blow of demoralising force.
Yesterday a breakfast time television reviewer of the Sunday papers airily offered the view that no one player ever made a team. The lady would have been better off staying with the love life of John Prescott. One player, if he is Maradona or Ronaldinho or - let's be very sure about this - Wayne Rooney, does make a team.
He has the potential to lift it to the stars. He gives it the range, the imagination and the force which makes the highest ambition reasonable. Maradona won the 1986 World Cup for Argentina as near to single-handedly as it is possible in a team game. Ronaldinho shattered England in the World Cup quarter-final four years ago. He scored a mesmerising free-kick which left the goalkeeper David Seaman in bewildered tears. Earlier, he had run through almost the entire English defence before serving his team-mate Rivaldo with the perfect pass for a vital equaliser.
Such deeds were magnificently evoked by the teenaged Rooney two years ago in the European Championship before a similar foot injury - which kept him out of action not for six but 14 weeks - cut him down in the quarter-final against Portugal.
Until that moment of despair Rooney promised to carry England on his young shoulders. He panicked France into a penalty. He devastated Switzerland and Croatia and, until he limped out of the game, he had the Portuguese on their nerve ends.
Now it is as though an electric current has been switched off. What can Eriksson do without Rooney and probably Owen? Who are the men to respond to the perilous hour? Jermain Defoe? This season he has failed to protect his first-team place at Spurs. Peter Crouch? A player of some deceptive talent and, at least for a little time, a puzzle to defences, no doubt, but the force to carry England from their now besieged state of mind? Not too likely. James Beattie? Glimmerings of recent strength and form have scarcely touched a great body of underachievement.
When we talk of such details we skirt along the margins of the disaster. Rooney brought two irreplaceable gifts to England's World Cup challenge.
One was practical. It was a supreme talent, that mysterious understanding of where to be and when to strike which is the property of only great players. The other was to do with the psychology and the belief of a team. In his first start for England - a European Championship qualifier against Turkey in Sunderland - Rooney instantly established an extraordinary aura. He did something which will never be forgotten by anyone who saw it and knew, instinctively, what it meant.
He gathered in a high, loose ball with absolute control before setting off on a run for the Turkish goal. The Turks had made it to the World Cup semi-finals the previous year and been declared a new force on the international stage. That didn't mean anything when Rooney made his move. The Turks dwindled before your eyes - and England grew. They had been touched by the certainty of Rooney's talent and it has been sustaining them ever since. Right up to the moment when he went down grimacing in pain at Stamford Bridge.
Of course, there will be desperate entreaties for a new redeemer now. The Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, has huge talent and great ambition. But he is not Rooney, and nor is the much-lauded Frank Lampard. The Chelsea man has great competitive character, but like Gerrard he lacks that final dimension of a Rooney or a Ronaldinho. The deficit is one of genius and it was on an explosion of this which the embattled Eriksson based all his serious hopes of resurrecting his reputation in the German summer.
If you have guarded sufficient compassion, despite all the mistakes of Eriksson and his Football Association employers, you are obliged to weep for the Swede - and for England.
Before Rooney went down, Eriksson had an escape hatch, a reason for some optimism. The cold view here was that it was inflated; that if Rooney was the great hope and potential inspiration, there had to be serious doubts about both the leadership and the organisation of the team which he was obliged to lift so high.
Most of all, though, it is necessary to cry for Rooney because for all of his immaturities, his proneness to trouble on the field and sometimes a lack of discipline off it, this is a young player who has engendered so much hope for the future on the back of something more than mere God-given talent.
Paul Gascoigne had that to a sometimes surreal degree. But Gazza failed to deliver more than a fragment of his ability for various reasons, and not least the sense that football was something that he might love deeply, in his way, but also that it would always be subject to distraction: celebrity, the attention of his B-list showbiz "friends", and his addictive nature could too easily lead him away from what needed to be the core of his existence.
This has never been the fear with Rooney. The weight of money, the recent embarrassment of publicly revealed gambling debts, poor advice, are hazards that have to be faced, and conquered, but confidence that this will happen are rooted in an obvious truth. Football is the centre of Rooney's life, and the cruelty of what happened at Stamford Bridge is that no one is more devastated than himself.
Celebrity has no great lure for Rooney. His imperatives are the passion and the excitement of football, a game he has always understood with breathtakingly precocious vision.
The impact of his loss surely goes beyond the borders of English football. Along with Ronaldinho and Argentina's Lionel Messi, Rooney represents the three best hopes for a memorable World Cup. In their talent they form a troika creating thrilling expectation. Now the troika may have been dismantled and Rooney may be required merely to watch the race for glory.
If that happens, there is no doubt that it will be the most wretched experience of his life; the nation will have its regrets, but they will be dwarfed by his own.
Meanwhile, what is left of the England team in strength and morale will be expected to perform, under a time-expired and disgraced manager, competitively and with honour. With or without Rooney, that was always the obligation, but before the curse came down, before the lights were switched off, it was one that carried the possibility, however long, of an utterly redeeming triumph.
Now such a long-shot dream has been made to look at best fanciful. This isn't over-reaction. It is merely to understand the meaning of Wayne Rooney.Reuse content