- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006

HANOVER, Germany — Veteran Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson has called him the “special one.” Others call him the “white Pele.” But if Wayne Rooney gets his way today against Portugal in Gelsenkirchen, he truly could turn this World Cup into “Wayne’s World.”

At 20, the talismanic Rooney has the ability, personality and sheer will power to rally England, which has stuttered and fumbled its way into the quarterfinals. Rooney’s amazingly speedy return from a broken foot has given hope to his teammates and the 100,000 English fans who have made their way to Germany for today’s game, most of them without tickets.

Although the team has been brutalized by the British media for not playing well, Rooney has been a bright spot. In the latter part of the game against Ecuador in the round of 16, Rooney was trapped at the corner flag by a defender. The Manchester United ace tapped the ball through the defender’s legs and, with stunning acceleration, buzzed around his opponent into the box to set up the ball for Frank Lampard, who uncharacteristically blew the shot. Clearly, Rooney was back, but was his supporting crew?

“When I was injured. people might have thought I was sitting around doing nothing, but I was doing everything I could to keep myself fit,” Rooney said this week. “I stayed positive and always believed I’d play in the World Cup. … The thought never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be here.”

Rooney’s opponents today have played an important role in his short career. It was Portugal’s Jorge Andrade who broke Rooney’s foot at the Euro 2004 semifinal, forcing Rooney to leave the game after 30 minutes. England eventually lost to Portugal on penalties. Then on April 29, Chelsea’s Portuguese defender, Paulo Ferreira, in a league game, flattened Rooney, who broke his foot again. English fans gasped with horror as the quarterback of England’s hopes lay writhing in pain, and England’s odds at the final fell dramatically overnight.

Even FIFA boss Sepp Blatter said it was a loss.

“Maybe England will find a new star,” he said.

Not likely. Rooney is the kind of player who comes around only once a generation.

“At his rampaging best, Rooney is one of the best players in the world, perhaps close to being the best of all,” Simon Barnes wrote in the Times of London.

Rooney’s miraculous recovery and return to form are typical of a player of raw determination and absolute conviction.

“His heart and courage come from inside him,” Ferguson said. “And it’s because he got a big blinking heart.”

That’s what makes Rooney so special. He has a unique instinct about the game and the ability to read how a play will unfold, speed, loads of talent and the ability to take tough situations in stride. But the heart and conviction he exhibits are most unusual.

“People say I play with heart,” Rooney said. “To me, that means they see the work ethic I put into a football game. If you haven’t got the heart to work and win, you may as well stop playing.”

Rooney was born in a tough part of Liverpool into a Catholic family of amateur boxers. The day he was born, his father bought him a blue Everton shirt, and Rooney made his debut for the Premier League club in 2002 when he was 16.

It was Rooney’s stunning long-range goal that ended champion Arsenal’s record 10-month, 31-game unbeaten streak. But then he was lured away from his boyhood team by Manchester United, the world’s biggest club, in a $52 million deal. In his debut for United, the 18-year-old achieved what none of the greats at United had before him: a hat trick in 6-2 win over Fenerbahce in the Champions League. And all the goals came from outside the 18-yard box.

Rooney became the youngest player to play for England’s national team at 17, and later became the youngest to score for his country. He has now scored 11 times for England in just 29 games.

“You could tell he was special straight away — you could feel your hair raising,” said Bob Pendleton, the Everton scout who discovered Rooney when he was playing U-10 soccer. “I’ve been asked if I’ll ever find another Wayne Rooney and the answer is always, ‘No.’ ”

But England might be expecting too much today from Rooney, a pit bull of a player whose raw emotion can sometimes boil over.

“It’s dangerous to say that Rooney is Pele or Maradona, but I think he has that quality,” England coach Sven Goran Eriksson has said. “Wayne’s quality is incredible — he has everything. After training sessions, you have to hide the ball. Otherwise, he would never leave the pitch.”

But even if things don’t work out this time for Rooney, bet on there being other World Cups for him.

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