Soccer World Cup - Rooney still centre stage but England no longer expects
LONDON (Reuters) - More than a decade after he made his England debut as a fearless and prodigiously talented teenaged tearaway, it is still hard to find a consensus on Wayne Rooney's value to his country.
Is he the world-class talisman upon whom several England managers - as well as thousands of travelling fans - have invested their hopes of overdue success?
Is he merely a good player whose intermittent brilliance exposes the mediocrity of many his international team mates?
Or is he the English enigma - perhaps even underachiever - who has caused so much frustration at major tournaments?
What is clear is, that at the age of 28 and with 89 caps and 38 goals behind him, Rooney owes England a big World Cup in Brazil.
The Liverpool-born striker might have won Premier League and Champions League titles since joining Manchester United from Everton in 2004, but his England career has no obvious mark of distinction.
He is even waiting for his first World Cup goal.
In Germany in 2006, Rooney had only just overcome a foot injury and was evidently lacking in match fitness when his temper boiled over and he was sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho as England went out on penalties to Portugal in the quarter-finals.
"Don't kill him," Sven-Goran Eriksson told the media afterwards, as expectation and disappointment collided.
In South Africa in 2010, the frustration of life with England - and another pre-tournament injury - again got to the forward. At the end of England's stultifying 0-0 group-stage draw with Algeria, Rooney said into a TV camera as he walked off: "Nice to see your own fans booing you." He later apologised for "any offence caused".
Rooney couldn't take part in England's first two matches at Euro 2012 because he was suspended after being red carded during the final qualifier against Montenegro. He returned to score the winner against Ukraine but could not lift his team mates in the quarter-final with Italy which ended with another penalty shootout defeat.
"Rooney only plays well in Manchester," was former England coach Fabio Capello's damning assessment.
Even the one tournament that Rooney has graced - the 2004 European Championship - has become strangely tainted over the years by the subsequent feeling of unfulfilled potential.
So after he has covered his pale-white face in factor-50, which Rooney will turn up beneath the Brazilian winter sun in June?
Sadly, for England supporters, it is impossible to predict with any degree of confidence.
This time last year, Rooney was about to embark on a summer of uncertainty as his Old Trafford future lay in the balance. Most observers suspected that Rooney, whose relationship with Alex Ferguson was said to be beyond repair, would seek a new challenge at Chelsea.
However, Ferguson's short-lived successor, David Moyes, stood firm and Rooney stayed, even signing a new contract worth a reported 300,000 pounds a week in February.
This season Rooney has performed capably in a struggling United side, scoring a stunning goal from near the halfway line against West Ham, taking the captain's armband in the absence of Nemanja Vidic, and generally appearing committed and positive in the midst of his club's travails.
However, he seems uncertain about his best position, dropping increasingly deep in his desperation to get United's misfiring attack moving but also expected to be in the box to finish things off. He even takes corners when most fans would want him on the end of them.
His commitment can never be doubted, however and there have been suggestions that England coach Roy Hodgson could ask Rooney to become captain if Steven Gerrard retires after Brazil, a recognition of his maturity and inspirational never-say-die attitude,
Yet dark clouds have been gathering, too.
Against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final second leg, he played with what was described as a chipped bone in his toe. Moyes even admitted afterwards that his leading forward was having trouble "striking the ball". Rooney was ineffective and United went out.
Moyes of course was out of United himself by the end of the month, sacked after less than a season in the job. As a result, Rooney's career is about to enter another new phase.
Naturally, England have cause for concern when Rooney is injured before a major tournament. He has often taken time to regain full fitness, and a World Cup finals is not the arena in which to play your way back into form.
Hodgson's dilemma is whether to stake everything on his number 10 and in February he made a direct appeal to him to show the world what he can do at the finals.
"It is time for him to explode at the World Cup, to show the world what we know in England -- that he is a world class performer," the manager said.
Gerrard, who has been with Rooney all the way in an England shirt, is also convinced of his class and has been for a long time.
After Rooney's impressive full debut against Australia when he became the youngest player ever to represent his country aged 17 in February 2003, the Liverpool midfielder gushed: "I have never seen a full debut before as good as that.
"He was so full of confidence. He's got good vision, he's big, he's strong, he can hold the ball up, he can change pace, he's clever for his age and he can score goals."
And Rooney can still do all of those things. He has consistently led England's World Cup qualifying campaigns, and is only 11 goals short of Bobby Charlton's all-time mark of 49 in a white jersey.
The question, still, is whether he can do them against the best defences on the biggest stage of all.
(Editing by Mitch Phillips and Mike Collett)
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