Every November the folk of Edenbridge in England have fun by burning a villain in effigy. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein went up in flames in 2003. The next year, they torched former British prime minister Tony Blair.
The victim for fiery lampooning this year was Wayne Rooney. Rooney has not provoked or sanctioned wars. He can be uncouth but he’s no dictator. And his only weapons of mass destruction are his goal-scoring feet and powerful physique. But he, too, is now perceived as fair game, a tarnished icon.
If he’s looking for reasons for his fall from grace, the player who has been English soccer’s hottest property since he scored a wonder-goal against Arsenal as a 16-year-old could blame the prostitutes who recounted in lurid detail in Britain’s tabloids about how he supposedly bedded them in a Manchester hotel last year, when his wife was carrying their child.
Or he could point to the recent spat over his wages with his club Manchester United. Rooney’s tough bargaining and rumors that he might sell his services to United’s cross-town rival Manchester City infuriated fans of the Red Devils.
Vandals daubed “JOIN CITY AND YOU’RE DEAD” in red paint on a Rooney poster in the city’s center. More frighteningly, about 30 men, their faces obscured under hooded tops, gathered in protest outside Rooney’s home.
Perhaps most of all, Rooney could also cite the sudden and largely unexplained disappearance of his ability to score. Had he performed brilliantly at the World Cup in South Africa in June fans might have found it easier to overlook his perceived greed and flaws.
“He gives us very, very, very good publicity,” says Charles Laver of the Edenbridge Bonfire Society, which helps to organize the town’s annual commemoration of a failed plot to blow up parliament in 1605.
“He has brought it on himself ... One of the main things was his greediness,” Laver said before the 9m Rooney effigy was burned before a crowd on Saturday night. Its ears were those of Shrek, the cartoon ogre.
At age 8, Rooney was already wowing with his skills. Ray Hall, a youth coach at Everton, recalls the stunned silence when he scored with an overhead kick against a Manchester United boys’ team.
Everyone started to applaud.
“The coach from Manchester United looked down the line to me as if to say, ‘What have we just seen?’” Hall says in a video now on YouTube.
By age 11, Rooney was playing against boys three years older. At 15, he was playing 18-year-olds and was given time off school to train full-time with Everton. He left school with no qualifications. Rooney now has the words “Just enough education to perform” tattooed on his forearm.
In some ways, even at age 25, Rooney still gives the same impression as when he burst into the nation’s consciousness with that 2002 goal — of being a teenager locked into a man’s body.
Opinion-makers scoff that the Rooneys are white trash personified or, in British parlance, “chavs.”
The Rooneys acknowledge that intrusion is a cost of the fame they’ve cultivated in part by selling photos of private moments to gossip magazines. Only they know what they are genuinely like and it’s wise to be wary of the tabloid caricature of a shallow and spoilt couple. But it is also striking how Rooney has abdicated responsibilities and his fate to others.
In his biography of 2006, Rooney explains that he let his dad do the talking when an agent came to their home when he was a teenager.
“I kept out of it, couldn’t be bothered with all the business stuff and legal talk,” he says.
He doesn’t vote, nor read newspapers or follow world affairs. He leaves money matters to his advisers.
“I don’t really bother about those things much,” he says. “I know I’ve got three apartments in Florida and a villa in Marbella [Spain] ... But I haven’t seen any of them, just the photographs.”
Indeed, appearances are that Rooney has not fully matured into adulthood. Like other soccer players, he has a “passion” for cars. He likes TV and says he plays online games.
“I’m brilliant at doing absolutely nothing,” he says in the biography.
Luckily for him, he’s brilliant at soccer, too.
His goal against Arsenal made him the youngest player to score in the Premiership. He was also England’s youngest international.
His 34 goals last season for United helped distract from the club’s decision to sell stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez to Real Madrid and to Man City, respectively.
Then, Rooney the goal-scoring machine seized up.
At the World Cup, Rooney’s zip and touch were gone. He seemed lost, a shadow of himself.
England tumbled out in its first knock-out game, losing 4-1 to Germany. Rooney only distinguished himself by sarcastically sneering “Nice to see the home fans boo you. That’s what you call loyal supporters” into a pitch-side camera after a limp 0-0 draw with Algeria.
“It just didn’t click,” Rooney said in a televised interview four months later. “There was nothing physically wrong with me, so I just can’t see why I didn’t perform and it still puzzles me.”
Tabloids had a field day with the tawdry details of his supposed paid-for “romps” with women the year before. Again, the impression was of a man out of touch with reality. He was reported to have paid a hotel employee ￡200 (US$322) for a packet of cigarettes.
“The Rooney story is one perceived as epitomizing the excesses of top-level modern English footballers: economically over-rewarded; immensely powerful due to their special skills; and living their lives according to a moral code that is both different, and abhorrent, to many people,” says Simon Chadwick, director of the Centre for the International Business of Sport at England’s Coventry University.
Just as soccer made him, so it could now prove Rooney’s salvation. When the goals return, bad headlines will recede. But the question is when. While Rooney has been absent with an ankle injury, Javier Hernandez has been a good stand-in. The more goals he and others score, the less important Rooney’s return seems to become.
So much so that United have sent him to the US to train with Nike.
“We feel it’s in the best interests of him and the club to have a change of scenery for a while,” United assistant manager Mike Phelan said.
It’s all a bit mysterious and hardly makes Rooney appear essential for United. Out of sight, perhaps, but not out of mind.
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