According to the coaching fraternity and the cliché mongers on television, commitment explains all in the process of winning and losing, a striven for energy force that can be at its most potent in adversity.
There is nothing new in this but the dismissal of Wayne Rooney during the Champions' League match between Villarreal and Manchester United on Wednesday night suggests, not for the first time, that for those with a short fuse the relentless quest for total engagement in football carries the seeds of its own destruction.
In the week that England regained the Ashes from Australia in great style, with behaviour becoming to officers and gentlemen, nothing, not even the presence of both Rooney's managers, Sir Alex Ferguson and Sven Goran Eriksson, was enough to prevent him picking up two yellow cards, one for a lunge at Villarreal captain Quique Alvarez, the second for mocking applause in the face of the referee Kim Milton Nielsen. Rooney was dismissed for contempt, the contempt in which it seems he holds authority.
Technically and physically, Rooney is beyond all reasonable doubt the outstanding footballer of his generation, the key figure in England's quest for the World Cup in Germany next year. But what is to become of him? Who can curb Rooney's hair-trigger petulance?
Not Eriksson, whose failure to bring the teenage tearaway to heel had serious repercussions in Belfast last week when Rooney brought bedlam to the England dressing-room at half-time, unleashing four-letter abuse at his captain David Beckham as the tactically dishevelled national team stumbled to defeat against Northern Ireland.
On the basis of frustration, Sir Alex Ferguson defended Rooney's outburst. "He is always playing close to the edge," the United manager said. The burning question for Ferguson and Eriksson, though, is whether they can control Rooney's explosive nature. On it may hinge England's prospects in the World Cup and Manchester United's chances of repeating their Champions' League success of 1999.
Managers must move carefully. To my mind verbal assaults on match officials are the visible result of stoking hotter and hotter fires in players to ensure they perform at a proper level of intensity. (It would seem that professionals, who by definition are supposed to deliver a high standard, who have jobs at stake and families to support and egos to bulwark and team-mates to join in a common cause, have enough natural stimulation without the artificial jive of coaches, but that is another story.)
To say merely that cases of unruly behaviour are a symptom of the times in which we live supposes that the impulse to take up sport is very often today the impulse to earn millions.
The trouble is that a generation of sports millionaires, some like Rooney still teenagers, are encouraged by television and popular prints to see themselves as movie and rock stars entitled to adoration, the pamperings of luxury, and no questions asked about comportment on the playing fields. Those who attempt to intellectualise sport, particularly football, are often equally to blame for the behavioural shortcomings of today's heroes.
Rooney had a tough upbringing. He made his debut at Everton under a hard manager, David Moyes, who brought him along steadily. Since there is not the slightest hint that Eriksson has the answer to Rooney's problems it has to be found by Ferguson, whose record suggests that he can control the prodigy.
Recently, I read that if the difference between winning and losing turns on an official's call, it must take considerable character not to blow up. The suggestion was that it would take a saint.
I put this to the former Arsenal captain Frank McLintock, who is by far the most sensibly forthright and lucid of Sky Television's football pundits.
"Because there is so much at stake in the Premiership and the Champions' League you try to make allowances and, of course, everything wasn't all sweetness and light in my day," he said. "Difference was we knew how far to go."
Rooney's relations with officials are so frequently subject to emotional disturbance that you begin to fear for him. Unless Ferguson has the answer it is no exaggeration to suggest that one of the greatest talents at work in the game today could self-destruct before the age of maturity.
- More about:
- David Beckham
- Manchester United
- Premier League
- Sir Alex Ferguson
- Stephen Carter
- Sven-goran Eriksson
- Wayne Rooney