This article was originally published in the summer of 2020, we have republished it after Wayne Rooney hung up his boots to become the permanent manager of Derby County. Changes have been made to reflect Rooney's retirement.
In the 22nd minute of the 2004 European Championship quarter-final in Lisbon, England’s David James banged a long ball over the top of the Portuguese defence for Wayne Rooney. As he had done all tournament, Rooney instilled panic in the opposing defence. Portugal’s centre-half Jorge Andrade came across to cover but was beaten to the ball. As the two players came together, Andrade accidentally trod on the side of Rooney’s right foot. It caused Rooney’s boot to fly off, but he played on until the referee Urs Meier gave a free-kick to Portugal.
It had seemed an innocuous moment; within a minute, Rooney was down and in obvious pain. His team-mate Frank Lampard put the ball out so that Rooney could receive treatment. "The nation will hold its breath here," said BBC commentator John Motson. England were 1-0 up, with one eye on the semi-finals and much more than that lurking in the backs of their minds. Rooney, the unstoppable force of nature, had been stopped in his tracks. He tried to play on for a couple of minutes, but it was futile. A metatarsal bone – the bane of English international players in the noughties – had fractured in his right foot. Euro 2004 was over for Rooney, and he was replaced by Darius Vassell.
Portugal eventually won an absorbing match on penalties after a 2-2 draw. Some in England cried robbery after referee Urs Meier disallowed a 90th minute goal by Sol Campbell that would have won it; critics pointed to England’s error-prone goalkeeper, the self-inflicted wound of Rio Ferdinand’s suspension for missing a drugs test, conservative tactics by manager Sven-Göran Eriksson and a hopelessly imbalanced midfield. One thing that was hard to deny was that, before he tangled with Andrade, Rooney had been in the kind of form that might have overcome any and all imperfections.
The boy wonder
Wayne Rooney relaxes in Portugal
Image credit: Getty Images
That summer Europe found out what people had known in England for two years. Right from the moment that Clive Tyldesley screamed "Remember the name!" over his iconic debut goal as a 16-year old for Everton against Arsenal in 2002, Rooney’s rise had made the term meteoric seem understated. The goal made him the youngest player to score in the Premier League at the time. He quickly followed that by becoming the youngest player to play for England and the youngest player ever to score for England. Rooney did all of that before his 18th birthday; British football hadn’t seen a prodigy quite like this since Norman Whiteside.
Precocious record-setting was not their only similarity. As with Whiteside, Rooney was physically awesome. He didn’t need to fill out; he arrived fully formed, and ready to rag doll English football. And while he had the physical hallmarks of a classic English number nine, he also possessed a range of skills that were more commonly associated with a number 10. In his very first training sessions with England, one run followed by an insouciant chip over goalkeeper David James caused the rest of the squad to stand still and applaud.
Rooney’s vision and spatial awareness were exceptional for someone so young, and he was also blessed with searing pace. The whole ensemble suggested that English football had uncovered a player you might see once in a lifetime. Bobby Robson, Gary Lineker and former Everton manager and youth development coach Colin Harvey were among many pundits convinced that he was just that, and the idolatry was not all Anglocentric. After Rooney’s debut goal the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger called him "the greatest young English talent I have ever seen."
It was a talent that flourished more freely at international level than club level. In his first two seasons with his boyhood club, Everton finished seventh and 17th in the Premier League. Rooney registered 17 goals in all competitions in those two years and didn’t get any exposure to European football. Yet for England he was transformative, particularly in two excellent performances home and away against Turkey in the qualifiers for Euro 2004. Going into that tournament he had already scored five times in 13 internationals. The 18-year old Rooney would come of age to such an extent in Portugal that it was quickly apparent that Everton would not be able to hold on to him for much longer.
Making a statement
Wayne Rooney skips past Lilian Thuram
Image credit: Eurosport
While his name had been mentally logged by watchers of the Premier League, not everyone in the squad of England’s first opponents, France, were quite aware of who they were facing. “I remember before the game," Rooney told the BBC in 2012, "Lillian Thuram had done an interview where had said ‘I don’t know who he is. He’s just a kid playing up front for England.’ So that was in the back of my mind.”
Rooney would soon be in the forefront of Thuram’s. The match between England and France at the Estádio da Luz was the highest profile fixture of the first round and had a serious edge. Nine of the French squad played in the Premier League, and the match contained an undercurrent of the fractious rivalry between Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Wenger’s Arsenal, the two dominant forces in English football, with their players represented in both teams. France were the defending champions and still had Zinedine Zidane, the World Player of the Year. For most of the night, he would be upstaged by an upstart from Croxteth.
Rooney was sensational in a performance that was quirkily contradictory. He embodied the fearlessness of youth yet simultaneously displayed a maturity far beyond his years. His manager at Everton, David Moyes, once called him “the last of the classic street footballers”, but working in tandem with the bullish assertion of that ability was an innate feel for the game that can take players most of their career to develop. As smooth and in control as he was on the ball, his temper was perpetually on simmer; Thuram was bounced off one ball with a forearm to the mouth, which another referee may have taken a different view of, and Rooney also engaged Claude Makelele in a testy exchange of opinions.
It was the puckish abandon of a kid underwhelmed rather than overawed by his opponents. In Lisbon Rooney didn’t just occupy the space between the French defence and midfield, he owned the deeds. That frequently brought him into the orbit of Zidane. On one occasion, Rooney nutmegged him; on another he span away from Zidane with a Roulette, a moment as rich in symbolism as when Paul Gascoigne had flummoxed two Dutch defenders with a Cruyff turn at Italia ‘90.
Rooney’s key intervention of the night should have sealed the match midway through the second half. England were already leading through a Frank Lampard header when Rooney ran to collect a long clearance in his own half near the touchline. He flicked the ball over the head of the bewildered Thuram, collected the ball as it came out of the sky and then raced away as if Thuram didn’t exist. Rooney took the ball all the way into the penalty area, bursting past Silvestre, who threw out a leg and brought him down. Silvestre had nixed a potential goal of the tournament, and England had a penalty. Their captain David Beckham stepped up but saw his effort saved by French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.
Soon afterwards Rooney was substituted. He was given a thundering ovation as he left the pitch, but it was an extraordinarily conservative decision by Eriksson that backfired spectacularly. With the main out ball and threat now removed, France pinned England back and won the game in injury time. Zidane scored with an exquisite free-kick to bring the game level in the first minute of added time. In the third, despite throwing up beforehand, he dispatched a penalty to win the game after a disastrous back pass from Steven Gerrard led to David James clattering Henry in the penalty area.
It was a shattering defeat for England, which reduced Beckham to tears as he left the pitch. Even so, in absorbing it in the days that followed commentators were still drawn to the impact of Rooney before Zidane’s late knife twists. In the Times Matt Dickinson wrote that he "performed with an outstanding precociousness" while the Guardian awarded him 9/10 in their match ratings. It was merely an hors d'oeuvre to what followed.
Wayne Rooney scores the opener against Switzerland at Euro 2004
Image credit: Getty Images
In the final two group matches Rooney devastated Switzerland and Croatia. In the former in Coimbra, Rooney headed England in front after 23 minutes to become the youngest player to ever score at the European Championship. A record which was beaten four days later by Switzerland's own Johan Vonlanthen. Rooney sealed a game England eventually won 3-0 by adding another early in the second half, his fierce right foot shot clanking off the post and then the head of Swiss goalkeeper Jorg Stiel before dropping into the net. Technically it should have been an own goal, but even the UEFA officials were getting carried away with the impact of Rooney now.
Four days later, he blew Croatia away. England only needed a draw to advance but were up against it immediately when Niko Kovac put Croatia ahead after five minutes. From there Rooney simply took over. A glorious headed assist provided Paul Scholes with his first international goal in three years and brought England level late in the first half. Just before the break, Rooney gave England the lead by hosing a 20-yard dipper through Croat goalkeeper Tomislav Butina.
He made it 3-1 after 68 minutes. Michael Owen played him through and Rooney raced forwards to finish with a cool certainty, sending Butina the wrong way as he passed the ball into the net. Outside of his goals, Rooney’s overall contribution to the eventual 4-2 victory was immense. He was everywhere, with all of his natural talent flowing from him without passing through any filters of nerves, doubt or caution. England’s key players like Beckham, Scholes and Steven Gerrard looked for him constantly, and the deference was understandable. England seemed to possess a player that they could pull back like a wrecking ball and swing through any defence at the tournament.
The dreaded metatarsal
Wayne Rooney examines his injured foot
Image credit: Getty Images
Rooney was the sensation of the group stages in Portugal. Almost inevitably in the fit of hyperbole that followed, comparisons were drawn with the great and the good of world football. Eriksson went for perhaps the loftiest of all. When he was 10 years old, he had seen a spectacularly gifted teenager take over the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. “To compare one of today's footballers with Pele is not bad,” Eriksson said. “I am frightened because of the pressure it puts on Rooney, but I can't stop it. When you score four goals in three games it's going to be there.”
While it may seem fanciful in hindsight, Eriksson’s appraisal of Rooney in its contemporary setting was far from unique and speaks to his seismic impact in Portugal that summer. But not for the first time in his career, injury would intervene to ensure that all the lofty talk remained just that. Rooney’s subsequent tangle with Andrade halfway through the first half nixed any chance of him emulating Pele and guiding his country to a major international success straight out of school. When Rooney departed, England soon followed, and the European Championship continued without them.
Rooney wasn’t the only star attraction to suffer a disappointing end to Euro 2004. Zidane, Beckham, Raul of Spain and Luis Figo of Portugal would all go home empty-handed. All four were part of the garish ‘Galactico’ project at Real Madrid, where their President wanted to put together a team of the marquee world names and homegrown players – or, as he termed it, "a team of Zidanes and Pavons." Figo did at least reach the final, but the focal point of the Portuguese team was quickly becoming another rising teenage star. The 19-year old Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United started the tournament on the bench but quickly forced his way into the side, displaying the full range of an outrageously expressive talent that had made Sir Alex Ferguson rush through his transfer from Sporting Lisbon a year earlier.
Yet for all the glamour of the various individuals on show, it was the team with no stars that bagged the trophy. Greece had shocked Portugal by beating them in the opening match and then did so again in the final. Their counter-attacking style from the base of a watertight defence saw them rattle off three consecutive 1-0 wins in the knockout phases, including the submarining of France in the quarter-finals.
Despite playing so definitively to their strengths they did receive some haughty criticism for the style in which they won, a portentous sign of how football coverage and analysis was about to change. Greece, quite rightly, couldn’t have cared less. It was a stunning triumph; not quite the equal of Denmark’s victory in 1992, but a stylistic echo which also came from a leftfield point of origin. At the outset, the odds on a Greek victory had been 150-1.
Wayne Rooney during England's defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016
Image credit: Getty Images
That summer only the foolhardy would have bet on Rooney staying at Everton. In August he signed for Manchester United for £25.6 million. “I am very excited,” said Ferguson. “I think we have got the best young player this country has seen in the past 30 years.” In his first game for the club, Rooney scored a hat-trick in the Champions League against Fenerbahce. The following month, on his 19th birthday, he won a penalty and scored the clincher in a 2-0 victory over Arsenal that ended the 49-game unbeaten streak of the Invincibles. In April 2005, he scored one of the most iconic goals in Premier League history when he leathered a preposterous 25-yard volley past Shay Given of Newcastle United.
For a short while the more hyperbolic end of the hype was still believable. Rooney and Ronaldo would form an axis of a great new Manchester United side that would wrestle back control of English football from Arsenal and Chelsea at the end of the noughties. Yet it gradually became apparent that it would be Ronaldo and not Rooney that would ascend to the plateau of the very greatest players to have ever played this game.
Ferguson had to back the right horse and, as was his knack, did so. From 2006 United were structured around and for Ronaldo. Within that framework, his talent was maximised and, accordingly, United won a hat-trick of Premier League finals and the Champions League in 2008. Rooney was still a brilliant multi-part player in one of the most successful spells in the history of the club; his ability to play up front, deeper or in wide positions to such a high level, willingly and selflessly, are evidence of a football intelligence for which he has never received full credit.
When Ronaldo left for Real Madrid in 2009 Ferguson threw his chips in with Rooney and was rewarded with the greatest season of the player’s life. In 2009-10 Rooney would be the PFA and FWA Player of the Year, scoring at a rate not far off Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in their pomp while guiding United to within sight of a record fourth league title in a row and another Champions League final. Yet in the quarter-final of the latter against Bayern Munich, and just as had happened at Euro 2004, Rooney was injured in a seemingly innocuous challenge. “Twice has he carried his team to the brink of something historic,” wrote Daniel Harris in the New Statesman in 2016, “and twice has misfortune intervened.”
He was rushed back, but United’s season fell apart and they won nothing. The 2010 World Cup was a disaster too; Rooney wasn’t right, and a poor England team were thrashed by Germany in the second round. It conformed to a pattern with Rooney and the national side, as Euro 2004 proved to have been a high watermark rather than the first wave in a tide. Rooney was sent off against Portugal at the 2006 World Cup, went out in the first round in Brazil 2014 and was substituted as England fell to a second-round defeat against Iceland at Euro 2016. His international tournaments were a smorgasbord of disappointments.
When Rooney went to the 2010 World Cup he never really came back. Two of his greatest assets – his pace and his upper body-strength – began to disappear incrementally from his game. Life decisions, lifestyle choices and a series of run-ins with Ferguson were also compounding factors in a slow decline that was becoming noticeable from 2012 onwards. By that time, the swagger and assuredness of his youth had all but evaporated. After Ferguson retired in 2013 Rooney forged a more statesmanlike role for himself as captain of United and then England, but increasingly from deeper areas of the pitch. He claimed Bobby Charlton’s prestigious goalscoring records for both, but the end was nigh. Out of favour with both in 2017, Rooney went back to Everton on a free transfer that summer and retired from the international game.
He has since had as stint in Major League Soccer with DC United and has now hung up his boots to become the permanent manager of Derby County in the Championship. Rooney is now 35 and retires with the acknowledgement that he was one of the best players in English history. Yet at Euro 2004, it looked like the only debate he would instigate on legacy would be which player you would put behind him in second place. With five Premier League titles and a Champions League winner's medal to his name, plus one of the seminal YouTube montages of spectacular goals, it would be churlish to criticise Rooney for being a mostly brilliant player rather than a transcendent one. Looking back at his performances that summer in Portugal though, when his teenage version bounced Thuram around and flummoxed Zidane, it’s hard not to conclude you’re watching a player that might have made that leap.
On Monday, it's the turn of Xavi and the ascent of Spain, Barcelona and tiki-taka...
Euro Icons: Every episode
- Euro Icons, 2000: The most glorious summer of Zinedine Zidane's career
- Euro Icons, 1996: Alan Shearer and the summer when football came home
- Euro Icons, 1992: Peter Schmeichel, the Great Dane
- Euro Icons, 1988: Marco van Basten and a truly iconic triumph
- Euro Icons, 1984: Michel Platini's one-man demolition job
- Euro Icons, 1980: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and the new Germany
- Euro Icons, 1976: Antonin Panenka, a true original
- Euro Icons, 1972: Gunter Netzer and the greatest Germany team of all time