Rooney's Injured Foot Pains All of England
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
BUHLERTAL, Germany, June 6 -- A tiny bone has kept a nation in suspense for more than five weeks now. The digit in question, the fractured fourth metatarsal of England striker Wayne Rooney's right foot, has been the country's leading cause of angst and speculation this spring, and during the team's first World Cup training session in Germany on Tuesday morning, reporting on the injury still was irresistible for the massive British media throng.
In his short international career, Rooney quickly has become the most important player on the English team, and his powerful right foot could be the difference between glory and despair for fans pining for a second World Cup victory. England, the historical home of soccer, won its one World Cup in 1966.
So Wednesday morning, when doctors scan Rooney's foot to determine his status for this tournament, all of England will be hanging on the results. Recent reports have brightened the outlook for a possible return, maybe even by Friday's opener against Paraguay in Frankfurt.
"I have always told you that he will take place in the World Cup, and I still believe it very, very strongly," Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson said following Tuesday's practice at the intimate Mittelbergstadion in remote Buhlertal, a quaint village tucked amid picturesque vineyards, rolling hills and huge, lush trees near the German-French border.
Rooney, who has scored 11 goals in just 26 starts for his country, is but one casualty of the hectic period between the end of a grueling European soccer season and Friday's start of the World Cup.
The Czech Republic, for instance, which plays the United States on Monday, has dealt with three injuries to top players: Midfielder Vladimir Smicer (knee) was ruled out last week, hulking forward Jan Koller (knee) has returned to action and midfielder Tomas Rosicky (thigh) was cleared to return Monday. The Italians, who face the United States in their second game, already expect to be without one defensive stalwart, Gianluca Zambrotta, for at least their initial contest, while another defensive pillar, Alessandro Nesta, is in doubt for the opener as well. Their playmaker, Francesco Totti, will be making a return from a broken leg suffered in February.
The Dutch suffered three key injuries of varying degrees in a recent friendly, and teams such as Brazil, Paraguay and the Ukraine also have had key players hurt.
Rooney was not the only English star unable to take part in Tuesday's training session, either; midfielder David Beckham spent the 90 minutes mostly jogging around the perimeter of the pitch with starting left back Ashley Cole. Eriksson said both players have relatively minor injuries, while linchpin midfielder Steven Gerrard came off five minutes early with a stiff back. Eriksson said he expects all back in practice Wednesday.
Rooney, clearly, is the chief concern surrounding this squad. His injury has dwarfed all other issues for a team never lacking subplots -- ranging from Beckham's ever-changing hairstyles to the imminent departure of Eriksson following this World Cup.
It did not take long for Tuesday's proceedings to turn testy.
When images of Rooney executing a splendid scissor kick during Monday's training session were published back in England, hysteria over his seemingly imminent return hit unprecedented levels. Cameras lined roughly half the field Tuesday, with television outlets broadcasting countless live reports. All attention was focused on every movement Rooney made during his individual work with coaches.
While his teammates went through passing drills and a spirited nine-on-nine, short-field game, with 250 screaming local school kids egging them on, Rooney was limited to more rudimentary exercises, like jogging vigorously in place and slaloming through cones and poles. Rooney did little with the ball at his feet, although when he delivered one hefty volley into an open net, an official from the Football Association, the sport's governing body in England, scampered over to a photographer to ensure he got the shot for the FA's Web site.
Eriksson immediately made it clear that he had little to say on Rooney until the results of the upcoming medical tests are known -- "I think it's been said so much about Wayne," he said, "so let's wait until tomorrow morning." That deterred no one, however, and Eriksson spent the first four minutes of his briefing addressing the injury anyway.
Reporters made feeble attempts to frame Rooney questions differently, eager for any alteration in Eriksson's predictable response, and when the manager did yield ever so gently, elaborating for a moment, he merely elicited another spate of Rooney queries before an FA spokesperson finally intervened. ("No more questions on Wayne Rooney, please. Thank you."). Another spokesperson felt compelled to make the same intonation when defender Gary Neville was presented before the media, while starting goalkeeper Paul Robinson knew better than to enter the fray.
"I think the gaffer [Brit-speak for coach] said he's done talking about Wayne," Robinson reminded the audience. "There's nothing more you can say until tomorrow, really."
Neville, Rooney's teammate at Manchester United, can relate to the young star's plight. Four years ago, Neville thought he was bound for the World Cup -- making what he believed was a speedy recovery from a broken foot -- when a scan revealed he needed surgery instead, and he missed the event.
Neville served as the voice of reason on more than one occasion Tuesday -- "We're in our own little world sometimes in England, where we think we're the only team in the World Cup," he observed -- and sounded a cautionary tone about Rooney amid all of the excited conjecture.
"He hasn't trained for five, six weeks," Neville said. "I think we all get a little bit carried away in this country. He has a broken foot, so let's leave him be. Let's give him some time."
For a soccer-crazed country that has longed 40 years for another World Cup, that might prove too much to ask.