Beautiful game. Beautiful mind.
ALAN SHEARER, the former England football captain, doesn't think much of my theory.
I'm loitering outside an interview room half a mile from the grounds of Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, waiting to interview the team's mercurial striker, Wayne Rooney, about his singular football genius. My suspicion: Behind his prominent brow and famously thick skull resides an underappreciated mind.
Shearer, the legendary center-forward turned BBC commentator, has just completed his own sit-down with Rooney, and when I ask him to rank the 26-year-old in the pantheon of football greats, he is resolute. Rooney, he says, belongs in the same exalted category as Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. "Wayne Rooney can do everything," says Shearer, 41, who scored 379 goals over his 19-year pro career. "If you ask him to play right back, he would be the best right back. Likewise center half. If he plays up front on his own, he can do that, no problem. Or he can play with a partner. He's now coming into his prime, which is a pretty scary prospect for all those defenders out there who think they got a chance of stopping him."
Shearer rolls on -- lauding Rooney's technique, admiring his courage, praising his growing maturity. He notes Rooney's accomplishments: the four Premier League titles, his role in United's Champions League victory of 2008, the six career Premier League hat tricks, most of any United player. But when I inform Shearer of my plan to ask Rooney about the thinking behind his game, he adapts a faintly pitying look: "I think he probably won't be able to tell you how he got his talent and his ability. He was born with it."
Rooney can do everything, in other words, except explain what it is that he does.
NATURE OVER NURTURE. Innate talent over hard work. These are deeply held notions in England, this most class-obsessed of nations, where a man's lot in life traditionally has been inscribed on his birth certificate. And nowhere is this clearer than in the country's view of Wayne Rooney -- the self-made genius cast in the role of dullard.
He is a far more complete player than, say, David Beckham. He shoots with power and precision. His close control is miraculous. His passing at times is stunningly perceptive. When the mood takes him, he can dribble and juggle like a Brazilian. He's scored 180 goals in 364 games with United and has shelves full of awards, including both the English football writers' and players' player of the year for 2010.
Yet few in Rooney's home country suspect that an intellect might lurk within his chunky frame. Ask them what they make of the player and they'll likely note the temper, the thuggery, how he left school without qualifications. He is, to many, an idiot savant, emphasis on the idiot. A nitwit with useful brute instincts.
He is not without blame in the building of this reputation. "Cheating Roo Beds Hooker." "Furious Rooney Threatens to Knock Out Fan." The tabloids have made a meal of him, and he's often seemed only too happy to provide the salt. He was sent off in the 2006 FIFA World Cup after apparently stomping on the genitals of Portugal's center half. He will miss England's first two Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine for hacking at an opponent in Montenegro. When he inked a riposte to his detractors on his arm -- Just Enough Education to Perform, the title of an album by his favorite band, Stereophonics -- the Daily Telegraph, perhaps willfully missing the joke, sneered that the tattoo "alludes to the fact he's not too bright."
It is not at all easy being Wayne Rooney. But Rooney doesn't always make it easy on himself.
ROONEY'S HISTORY WITH the media is clearly a complicated one. So when I sit down for our interview three days after United's 1-0 loss at Man City and announce that I want to ask him about his craft -- rather than the latest City-United spat -- he seems nonplussed. "Okay ..." he says warily. His agent, Paul Stretford, had warned me that as an "instinctive" player, Rooney might be unwilling or unable to discuss his game in conceptual terms. To warm him to the task, I suggest we start with his childhood.
Rooney grew up the oldest of three brothers in the Croxteth neighborhood of the largely working-class city of Liverpool. His father, also named Wayne, was a laborer, often out of work; his mother, Jeanette, worked part time cleaning schools. Today, Croxteth is noteworthy for being two things: a hotbed of gang violence and the birthplace of Wayne Rooney.
As a child, he played football for endless hours on the streets around his home or the asphalt five-a-side pitch behind his house. He played in darkness. He played alone. "You used to do it some days so long your sugar levels would be gone," he says. "But you'd just love playing football. From the minute I woke up, I had the ball until I went to bed." When his ball burst, he played with a pair of rolled-up socks.
Rooney developed games to amuse himself: He kicked balls over passing cars to hit a little road sign across the street. He imagined the wall in front of an abandoned nursery as a line of defenders to be dribbled past or beaten with a curled shot. At age 9, he scored 99 goals for his junior league club, and a scout for the local club, Everton, got wise and signed him. (The prevailing attitude at the club was that the boy's gifts were God-given and he couldn't really be improved by teaching. On the whole, coaches left him alone.)
When Rooney was 10, he made his "debut" at Everton's Goodison Park as a mascot for the derby game against Liverpool. In British football, mascots are young children chosen to appear on the pitch before the match, pose with the captains, even take a ceremonial part in the warmup -- the goalkeeper rolls the ball to the mascot, and the mascot kicks it back. Perfunctory stuff. But when Rooney's turn came, instead of obediently passing to keeper Neville Southall, young Wayne chipped the ball over the keeper's head and into the net. He'd been practicing the shot all week.
"Neville Southall didn't like that!" Rooney says. "He called me a 'flash git.'?" Rough translation: obnoxious show-off. "When I was younger," he continues, "I was quite cheeky, I think, but you need to be as well, because to be a top footballer you need to have a bit of arrogance, a bit of swagger about you."
It also helps to have a bit of genius, and here Rooney's began to reveal itself. Over the past decades, visualization has become increasingly common in sports, numerous studies suggesting that mental imagery coupled with repetitive training helps the brain create neural patterns, like building a circuit inside a computer. Earl Woods trained Tiger this way. Olympic sprint champion Michael Johnson pictured himself winning his races before they started. Wayne Rooney, a child in Croxteth, knew none of this. But he devised visualization techniques that he uses to this day.
"Part of my preparation is I go and ask the kit man what color we're wearing -- if it's red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks," he says. "Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You're trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a 'memory' before the game. I don't know if you'd call it visualizing or dreaming, but I've always done it, my whole life."
Did anyone teach you that? I ask. "No. When I was younger, I used to visualize myself scoring wonder goals, stuff like that. From 30 yards out, dribbling through teams. You used to visualize yourself doing all that, and obviously when you get older and you're playing professionally, you realize it's important for your preparation -- and you need to visualize realistic things that are going to happen in a game."
AT THIS POINT in our story, it's probably worth noting that Rooney has, shall we say, a unique manner of talking. He favors odd, back-to-front constructions. He overuses the word "obviously." He frequently refers to himself as "you." It's the Liverpool in him showing, and the result requires a patient listener. He'd make a good character in a Guy Ritchie film.
"I think, I suppose," says Rooney, when asked about his precocious genius, "when you are younger, you're always …you're a bit more advanced than the kids your age, so there are times on the pitch where you can see different things, but they can't obviously see it. So then it's like you get annoyed, but they are not obviously …It's like you said before. They can't calculate. I suppose it's like when you play snooker, you're always thinking three or four shots down the line. I suppose with football, it's like that. You've got to think three or four passes where the ball is going to come to down the line. And I think the very best footballers, they're able to see that before ... Much quicker than a lot of other footballers. So ..."
One can gather his meaning, if not diagram the sentences. But for the fullest definition, look no further than Rooney's second goal in a 4-4 home draw with Everton this season. At the 69-minute mark of the match, a ball sweeps in from the right and finds Rooney 30 yards out. Two defenders are closing in, but he has already solved the physical chess puzzle in his mind. He instantly lays off the ball to his right for strike partner Danny Welbeck to meet it just outside the penalty area. As Rooney's marker is forced to follow the ball, Rooney races into the unguarded space behind him. The other defenders sprint to cover the gap but are too late; Rooney is now a yard clear. When Welbeck's return comes, Rooney sweeps it in powerfully from just outside the 6-yard line.
Lost to many of his fans is that even such moments of creativity draw from Rooney's meticulous preparation, his study of spatial permutations in practice. "Basically you go in one position in the penalty box, and I'll have like 10 shots at the keeper," he says. "I'll tell him to go a bit early one time, and then you work out what decision is the best, and then if you get in that position in the game, that comes back to you. It's basically stored in your mind."
IN THE 1960s, a revolution took place in Holland. That's hardly surprising; it was a decade of revolutions. But this was a football revolution, one in which Ajax coach Rinus Michels and on-field genius Johan Cruyff began to develop their theories of "total football," a style that used space in a way never before imagined. Instead of rigid lines and fixed positions, Dutch players began switching positions fluidly, treating the field as a single space to be expanded and compressed at will. The Dutch drew on Vermeer, Mondrian and hundreds of years of a cultural tradition of measuring space in art and architecture. The kid from Croxteth got there by watching TV.
"I used to watch Jari Litmanen [the Finnish 'shadow striker' of the great Ajax team of the 1990s] a lot," he says. "I enjoyed how he moved and got into space. And he was patient. If you looked at him, he always never looked like he was rushed doing anything. He always used to take his time. Then, when the opportunity came, he found the space to get the ball in the net. The more you do it, the more it works. You need to know where everyone is on the pitch. You need to see everything."
Although the clock on our interview is ticking down -- we are, if anything, in injury time -- Rooney is fully engaged. It seems a fine time to ask about his famed bicycle-kick goal against Man City last season (see above). How much of the play was instinctive? At what point did he decide to try to score?
"When a cross comes into a box," Rooney says, his eyes darting back and forth as he works the play over again, making little feints with his head as if trying to bewilder a defender, "there's so many things that go through your mind in a split second, like five or six different things you can do with the ball. You're asking yourself six questions in a split second. Maybe you've got time to bring it down on the chest and shoot, or you have to head it first-time. If the defender is there, you've obviously got to try and hit it first-time. If he's farther back, you've got space to take a touch. You get the decision made. Then it's obviously about the execution."
And in the case of that play -- with a crossing pass curling behind him, a trailing defender closing on his right side, a near defender on his left shoulder slipping momentarily in an attempt to readjust to the ball -- the unlikeliest option was, in fact, the most likely to succeed. Elevate, lay back, one-time, over the shoulder. Like he had probably visualized hundreds of times as a child. The product of an agile mind. A wonder goal.
"What people don't realize is that it's obviously a physical game, but after the game, mentally, you're tired as well," he says. "Your mind has been through so much. There's so many decisions you have to make through your head. And then you're trying to calculate other people's decisions as well. It's probably more mentally tiring than physically, to be honest."
Which, all in all, is pretty well put -- for a man, that is, who supposedly can do everything except explain what it is that he does.