The pros and cons of appointing Wayne Rooney captain of England’s national soccer team are easily laid out.
But, as always with England, it’s more complicated. Dwelling on Rooney and what he represents is delving into a toxic area of class prejudice and chauvinism – what the English call “chavs” and the Italians call “coatto.” That is, those who are working class and vulgar. That’s before you even get to the soccer.
It all matters. As former England player and now-pundit Jamie Redknapp said about Rooney’s appointment, “The only person with more responsibility in the country is the Prime Minister.” Like the PM, Rooney is a polarizing figure.
When England manager Roy Hodgson made the announcement on Thursday, he said, “Wayne is an obvious choice for his honesty, commitment to the cause, his experience, the fact he has already captained England in the past. Now of course he’s got that responsibility at Manchester United as well.”
That statement lists some of the pros – at 28, Rooney is a senior player in a team with many new, younger faces, some of whom will come and go from the team. He’s played at two World Cups and two Euro tournaments. This summer, the new Manchester United manager, Louis van Gaal, moved quickly to appoint Rooney as team captain.
The list of cons is even longer. He was chosen by the manager, not the players. Rooney has never played well at international tournaments; the flair he exhibits for his club team evaporates. He’s only scored one World Cup goal. He’s shockingly temperamental – sent off during England’s World Cup quarter-final game against Portugal in 2006 for stomping a Portuguese player, he reduced England to 10 men, made worse by David Beckham having left the game from an injury. That ended England’s World Cup.
He was red carded in a qualifying game for Euro 2012 for a blatantly vicious foul and as a result missed the first two games of the tournament.Further, he’s lashed out at managers and England fans. Twice, while Sven-Goran Eriksson was manager, Rooney reacted with childish petulance when substituted. Once, he took off his boots and slammed them to the ground; on another occasion he swore at teammates and refused to acknowledge the player replacing him. At the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, he lashed out at England fans who booed England after a poor performance. He snarled sarcastically at a TV camera, “Nice to see your home fans boo you. That’s loyal supporters.” Some supporters who’d travelled from England to South Africa were livid at the outburst.
Perhaps he’s older and more mature now, less petulant. Perhaps.
But the way he polarizes opinion has more to do with both a class system and with England’s style of play – or lack of it.
Rooney is, arguably, an archetypal figure of the British underclass, a step below working class. His father was a casual labourer and the Rooneys come from Croxteth in Liverpool, a place rife with gang violence and massive unemployment. Rooney left school at age 16 without a single qualification. Parties thrown by Rooney and his wife, Coleen, with their relatives have sometimes ended in a brawl, with police intervening.
To some in England, Rooney is unfit to be a leader of the national team because of that background. He is not, as they might say, “officer material.”
Look at the online comments in English newspapers on the matter of Rooney and people will blithely use the term “breeding” to denigrate him. Reading those comments, you see England going back in time. To others, he’s the perfect captain, precisely because he’s uncouth, inarticulate and cocky. It’s the triumph of the underclass.
It’s Rooney’s style of play and what it encapsulates that worries many more. He’s enormously skilled but unsophisticated, seemingly uninterested in tactics and bewildered by his role in anything other than the traditional 4-4-2 formation. He hasn’t honed his skills as he’s got older. He stopped growing as a player. He still runs and harries, but loses interest when the opposing team’s more elaborate tactics stifle him. He’s the running, snarling personification of the old-fashioned British bulldog spirit, a rebuke to European and South American soccer finesse. One view is that making him captain solidifies the grip of the old, artless methods.
There’s no consensus. Results matter. But with Rooney and England, everything is loaded with meaning. And here’s one fatal meaning – if England has ambitions, Rooney has none. That’s the con that outweighs all the pros.