The biggest star on the world’s biggest soccer team has the eyes of a mercenary and the face of a little boy. Athletes who become famous at an early age always seem younger than they are, and Wayne Rooney—who burst onto the world stage at 16, signed with Manchester United at 18, and now, at 25, is comfortably the second-most-recognizable English soccer player on earth—has to all appearances become lodged in semi-adolescence, as if time tried to swallow him and couldn’t get him all the way down.
When Rooney smiles, which is seldom, he has a big, wobbly grin that’s disarmingly innocent for a married father with a bank account the size of the Titanic. When he scowls, which is most of the time, it’s with an air of smoldering petulance, as if his parents—the entire English public—just don’t understand. Even his scandals, which have been many, look like the work of a middle-schooler acting out an idea of grown-up badness. There are the cigarettes, the liquor, the prostitutes, the unsavory friends. Wayne Rooney is the national problem child, England’s naughty boy.
At his best, Rooney is a spectacular soccer player, the kind who makes jaded sportswriters gasp and start gushing about forces of nature. Lately, though, it’s the naughty Rooney who’s been dominating the headlines, while the striker who sweeps along the grass like a righteous wind—see, I can’t help myself—has been in short supply. A series of controversies both on and off the pitch and a stunning loss of playing form (he’s scored just twice since March) have sullied Rooney’s public image. And this time, there are signs that the doting fans who’ve always forgiven his missteps may finally be fed up with their no-longer-juvenile delinquent.
Rooney’s career has always resembled a teenage melodrama. He scored his first goal for his boyhood club, Everton, five days before his 17th birthday with a shot that ended Arsenal’s 30-game unbeaten run. (Too young to sign a professional contract, he was still living in his parents’ council flat and making 80 pounds a week.) The next year he made his debut for England—the youngest player ever to do so—and proposed to his girlfriend Coleen in the forecourt of a BP gas station. The year after that, Manchester United paid 25.6 million pounds to buy him from Everton. He scored a hat trick in his first game.
In those days, Rooney was a happy terror on the pitch, a striker with a midfielder’s eye for passing angles and a defender’s tenacity. His talents didn’t conform to any single position, and his managers never knew quite what to do with him. Sometimes he played as a center forward, sometimes as a withdrawn striker, and sometimes on the left wing, where Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson stuck him to make room for Cristiano Ronaldo. This maneuvering often didn’t matter. At a certain point, Rooney would switch off his positional instructions and try to blow up the Death Star on his own instincts, chasing the ball halfway down the pitch or attacking the goalmouth with impulsive fury.
Last year, with Ronaldo off in Spain, Rooney adapted to the role of lone striker and turned in the best season of his career, scoring 34 times. But he hurt his ankle in late March—the latest in a long series of foot injuries—and when he came back, the goals were gone. He spent the World Cup, where he was moved to center forward in England’s 4-4-2, standing around looking uncertain. His only real accomplishment was to make commentators speculate about whether his hot temper would land him in trouble. “I’d love to see him act like a baby,” the American pundit Alexi Lalas enthused. When some England fans booed after their team creaked to a 0-0 draw against Algeria, Rooney stalked over to the cameras and spat out, “Nice to see your home fans boo you. That’s loyal supporters, for fuck’s sake.”
Rooney apologized for the outburst, but his bruised ego and listless performance brought down a maelstrom of negative press. Being raked through the headlines is nothing new for Rooney. His career has survived paying for sex, drinking too much, smoking while on a $150,000-a-week athletics contract, stomping on opposing players, urinating in public, fighting in bars, and crashing multiple cars, among other exploits. The World Cup flare-up quickly gave way to another prostitution scandal, this one involving a call girl Rooney reportedly slept with while Coleen was—shock, horror—pregnant with his child. Without brilliant performances on the pitch to distract from what would’ve otherwise been the distraction, the story dragged on and on, with the media dredging through what one writer called his “immaturity as a man.”
But the prostitutes were mere preamble. Last month, Rooney found himself in the midst of a new kind of scandal, one that threatened to blacken his name like nothing ever before: a contract dispute. When negotiations over a new United deal broke down, Rooney let it be known that he wanted to leave the club. He further let it be intimated that he planned to move to United’s despised crosstown rival, the sheikh-owned, cash-flush Manchester City.
For many fans, this—not the fighting or the sex scandals—was going too far. Although Rooney left Everton to join United in the first place, his public image has always depended on a feeling that, if nothing else, he’s at least intensely loyal. His most iconic portrait depicts him bellowing defiance while body-painted as an English flag; just two seasons before, he’d famously kissed the United badge on his jersey after being jeered by Everton supporters. If he was thinking about joining City now, everything the fans loved about him must have been a lie. A sign that appeared in the stands at a recent United match—”Who’s the Whore Now, Wayne?”—neatly conveyed the conflict.
The hostilities quickly turned chilling. In the midst of a crossfire of press conferences, about 40 United fans, many wearing hoods and balaclavas, assembled outside the striker’s mansion, where they unfurled a banner reading “If you join City you’re dead.” Another death threat was spray-painted onto a billboard outside, of all places, Manchester’s Nike store. We’re lucky Jim Gray didn’t show up with a stool. Cavaliers fans burned some jerseys; Manchester might have needed the Royal Marines.
Rooney eventually did re-sign with United, for a substantial raise. But he was still accused of childishness, with one elderly club legend declaring that he had “the mentality of a 15-year-old.” Critics alleged that he was under the thumb of his agent, the entertainingly shady Paul Stretford. Alex Ferguson, who referred to Rooney as “the boy” throughout the negotiations, boasted to the press that he set Rooney straight by warning him, “I don’t want any nonsense from you.” All of this finger-wagging and head-patting, it should be noted, came despite the fact that Rooney’s rationale for wanting to leave United—that the club’s financial problems could harm its future competitiveness—was perfectly legitimate. Perhaps United’s future obstacles are so obvious that even a child can see them.
Rooney has yet to take the pitch since the contract wrangling, and how he’ll be welcomed is as big a question as when he’ll get his form back. (This weekend, fans in Kent are planning to burn him in effigy.) The questions are closely related. Supporters are a forgiving group when a player is in good form. They love Rooney as a misbehaving prodigy. It’s when the goals dry up that they—and the tabloids—turn on his supposed immaturity.
And there, of course, lies the irony. It’s not immaturity that’s made Rooney’s game deteriorate, it’s a string of injuries sustained while doing his job, along with a brash instinct increasingly subordinated to various positional responsibilities. (This year, United has again moved him out of his lone striker role and lined him up behind Dimitar Berbatov.) By the same token, no one ever threatened to kill Rooney for being rebellious. Local yobs didn’t start slotting him into their assassination fantasies till he took a businesslike view of his career. Rooney’s real problem with the fans, in other words, may be the same one that’s seen him struggle on the pitch. It’s not that he’s still a child, but that he’s suddenly too grown-up.