Wayne Rooney, from hero to bonfire villain

Every November, when a roaring fire and warm humor provide

welcome if transitory relief against winter’s tightening noose, the

folk of Edenbridge in England’s southeast have cheeky fun by

burning a villain in effigy. Saddam Hussein, brandishing a machine

gun in one hand and rocket in the other, went up in flames in 2003.

The next year, they torched Tony Blair.

The victim for fiery lampooning this weekend was of a different

ilk entirely: Wayne Rooney, England’s best footballer and its best

in decades. 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 nimble goal-scoring feet and his powerful,

potato-white physique. But he, too, is now perceived as fair game,

a figure of fun, a tarnished icon.

If he’s looking for reasons for his fall from grace, which he

may not be, because deep introspection is not Rooney’s thing, the

player who has been English football’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 ruthless

tabloids about how he supposedly bedded them in a Manchester hotel

last year, when his wife and sweetheart from adolescence was

carrying their child, Kai.

Or he could point to the remarkably public recent spat over his

wages with his club Manchester United. Rooney’s tough bargaining

and rumors that he might sin by selling 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 the shuttered gates of the high-security mansion that

Rooney and his wife, Coleen, call home, but which critics who revel

in mocking the couple have dubbed ”Waynesor Castle.”

Perhaps most of all, Rooney could also cite the sudden and

largely unexplained disappearance of his ability to score with his

feet and pudgy head. Had England’s great white hope performed

brilliantly at the World Cup in South Africa this June then fans

might have found it easier to overlook his perceived greed and

flaws as a man – as they did with other footballing rogues like

mercurial Frenchman Eric Cantona, who also played at United, or the

English tragicomic midfielder Paul Gascoigne, affectionally known

as ”Gazza” and loved for his footballing inventiveness despite

his off-field torments with booze and mental illness.

As with bonfires, England’s chattering classes have also long

enjoyed building up public figures only to subsequently burn them

down. That is now true of Rooney, too.

”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 with fireworks and bonfires of the

failed Nov. 5 plot to blow up parliament and King James I in

1605.

”He has brought it on himself. He has decided that he doesn’t

want to toe the line. One of the main things was his greediness,”

Laver said, speaking by telephone before the 30-foot (9-meter)

Rooney effigy was burned before a crowd on Saturday night. Its ears

were those of Shrek, the cartoon ogre.

”That’s life, people come in and out of favor,” Laver added.

”He’s strayed from the straight and narrow and got in the

news.”

But Rooney has always been the news since that goal of 2002

which ended Arsenal’s unbeaten run of 30 games. As such, he became

tasty fodder for modern Britain’s hunger for all-things celebrity –

perhaps even more so after United sold David Beckham to Spain’s

Real Madrid in 2003, leaving tabloids and paparazzi needing other

focuses for their lenses.

At age 8, he was already wowing with his skills. Ray Hall, a

youth coach at Liverpool club Everton that Rooney was a fan of from

his earliest days, recalls the stunned silence when he scored with

an overhead kick in an eight-a-side match 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

other than football. Rooney now has the words ”Just enough

education to perform” tattooed on his pasty-white right

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.

Unlike in the United States, where such turnarounds are more

models to emulate than to mock, Rooney’s poverty-to-wealth clamber

from grimy Liverpool estate to the top of the world’s richest

football league grates with some in class-conscious Britain, often

inspiring snobbery. Opinion-makers scoff that the Rooneys are white

trash personified or, in British parlance, ”chavs.” The Times of

London felt comfortable once describing his wife, who is building a

career of her own in fashion and publishing, as ”a girl of average

looks, an unremarkable figure and no discernible talent.”

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

behind closed doors 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.

Outside football, much of the rest of life seems to leave him at

best ambivalent.

In his biography of 2006, the year he turned 21, 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. ”I just

slept, curled up on the floor.”

He doesn’t vote – ”Not interested,” he says – 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, outside appearances are that Rooney has not fully

matured – or not had to – into adulthood. Like other footballers,

he has a ”passion” for cars. He likes TV and says he plays online

games at night, logging in with a pseudonym after once making the

mistake of using his real name, eliciting hundreds of messages.

”I’m brilliant at doing absolutely nothing,” he says in the

biography, ”My Story So Far.”

Luckily for him, he’s brilliant at football, too.

His right-footed drive from 30 yards (meters) against Arsenal

made him the youngest player to score a Premiership goal. Not long

afterward, Rooney signed his first professional contract,

multiplying his wage nearly 200-fold from 75 pounds to at least

13,000 pounds per week, at just 17.

He was England’s youngest international and youngest-ever

scorer. His 34 goals last season for United helped distract from

the indebted club’s questionable 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 still

charged around, as he does, for the ball but seemed lost, a shadow

of himself. He scored in practice but not when it counted in

matches. England tumbled out in its first knock-out game, losing

4-1 to Germany. Rooney only distinguished himself in the wrong way

– 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 in an earlier group game.

”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.”

Aware that Rooney’s stock was slumping post-World Cup, 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 little boy lost, out of touch with reality. He was reported to

have paid a hotel employee 200 pounds for a packet of cigarettes

and to have been wracked with guilt after sex with two women,

sitting on the bed in a fluffy white bath robe, holding his head in

his hands.

That Rooney speaks in his biography of visiting brothels as a

16-year-old leant credence to the stories. It all looked awful for

Coleen, who forgave his teenage errors and of whom he has spoken of

devotedly – how they saw ”Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”

on a first date and how, before his 18th birthday, he proposed

marriage in a gas station’s forecourt.

”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.

”At the same time, the story is about a player, skillfully

represented by an agent, who publicly played out his contract

negotiations at a time when his off-field activities were open to

serious question.”

In a curious negotiating strategy, Rooney suggested that the

United team which Alex Ferguson has managed to multiple trophies in

his 24 years in charge was no longer good enough. That riled some

of his teammates. It also cut close to the bone for United’s

American owners, who have been criticized for loading the club with

debt. Then again, diplomacy has never been Rooney’s strength: One

of his lesser records, again back in 2002, was being the youngest

player in the Premier League to be red-carded.

Just as football made him, so it could now prove Rooney’s

salvation. When the goals return, bad headlines will recede. As

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard explains, ”Sometimes, when you’ve

got an issue off the field, you know football can be a release from

that.”

But the question is when. While Rooney has been absent with an

ankle injury, Ferguson’s new 22-year-old striker Javier Hernandez

of Mexico 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 the club has sent him to the United States to

train with Nike, one of the sponsors that has stuck with him.

”We feel it’s in the best interests of him and the club to have

a change of scenery for a while,” said United assistant manager

Mike Phelan. ”He needs the conditioning and he can go there

without the attention he’d get around here.”

It’s all a bit mysterious and hardly makes Rooney appear

essential for United. Out of sight, perhaps, but not out of

mind.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.