Why The World Cup Is Rooney’s Last Chance Saloon

When Wayne Rooney takes the field against Italy on June 14th in Manaus, it will be 10 years and a day since he came out swinging at Euro 2004.

France were the opponents a decade ago at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon (home for Saturday's Champions League final), with the reigning European champions in their heady Zidane years and no shortage of world-class performers to serve as Zizou's support acts.

But there was reason for hope on English shores. Manager Sven Goran-Eriksson had the fabled ‘golden generation' on tap and he sent out a line-up that was overflowing with experience, technical excellence and men to lead.

England's starting XI vs. France, Euro 2004—James, G Neville, Campbell, King, A Cole, Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Rooney, Owen

Beckham, Lampard, Scholes and Gerrard would provide the ammunition. And in Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, Sven had a pair of rocket-propelled strikers who could kick a ball past you, and meet it on the other side.

It was a match that will be remembered most for Zidane's two late goals to win it, but Rooney's contribution was the stuff of great anticipation for England fans. The 18-year-old took on the likes of Zidane, Patrick Vieira and Lillian Thuram with scant regard for their reputations.

Rooney dipped his shoulder and ran at World Cup winners, with no fear of reprisal. He barged full-blooded into European icons. He ruffled their feathers and made things happen. And when he flicked the switch to leave Mikael Silvestre in his wake, he won England a penalty that should have won them the match.

Rooney's message had been served.

Rooney celebrates scoring against Croatia at Euro 2004.

"At 18 you probably don't know the game as well as you think you do, so you're playing on instinct a lot of the time," Rooney said in a BBC interview in 2012. "There's a rawness about you and a lot of players don't really know that much about you."

What happened next, in terms of Rooney tuning that instinct and raw talent to end his nation's football suffering, has been debated many times since that day in Lisbon. 

Four goals followed against Switzerland and Croatia, of course, but the rampaging Rooney limped out of England's Euro 2004 quarter-final and has never been seen for his country again. Where the Three Lions are concerned, there are fears he may be gone forever.

World Cup 2006 saw an injured Rooney rushed to fitness and then get sent off against Portugal. World Cup 2010 coincided with an unsettling tabloid scandal, but there was no injury to disguise his poor performances. Euro 2012 wasn't helped by a two-game suspension to start the tournament, but once again Rooney underwhelmed.

As thoughts turn to this summer's World Cup, it's hard to gauge a realistic level of expectancy for Rooney's output. Should England fans still consider Rooney the man most likely? Or have we now entered a period where Rooney is no longer the potential barnstorming matchwinner - just a very well-oiled cog in England's machine?

Either way, he starts against Italy. Anybody who suggests otherwise - and they're out there, even in the pundit ranks - doesn't deserve to watch the match when it happens.

The bigger question is whether Rooney will ever get close to the player we saw at Euro 2004. When I spoke to Stan Collymore last week, he told me pace was the issue - that Rooney losing the ability to drive past players on legs alone had forced him to change his approach.

Collymore puts part of that down to Rooney's lifestyle choices and his lacking the kind of focus and dedication we've seen from Cristiano Ronaldo. It's not that Rooney doesn't try on the pitch; it's that he doesn't try as hard as he might when he's off it.

There are mental demons to consider as well. Rooney lives life in the public eye, especially on England duty, has unquestionably affected his outlook. Football is no longer a freedom, but his every appearance a potential beacon for criticism. It hasn't helped being the best player for club or country either.

To glimpse at the 18-year-old Rooney again England must first take the pressure off. It won't happen from the media, but it can happen in the form and contribution of the young players around him in Brazil. Should Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley or Raheem Sterling get lift off at the World Cup, Rooney will freed of some responsibility.

We might not see him bursting past players in the style of old, but given the right mental footing Rooney can still win games for this England team. 

The time has come to stop judging Rooney on what might have been after Euro 2004, and start measuring the man on what happens from here. He's still a wonderfully gifted player - a forward who scored 17 goals in 27 appearances for Manchester United in the Premier League this season, and finished with 10 assists.

He might not be the footballer we first fell in love with, but Rooney still deserves our affection. He also needs it.

Just as one tournament gave birth to his hype a decade ago, so another can reinvigorate it in the coming weeks.

Bet on England vs Italy now.