1 July 2006 – Gelsenkirchen, Germany: In front of a 52,000 strong crowd at the World Cup quarter-finals, Wayne Rooney had petulantly jabbed at Ricardo Carvalho’s privates, seemingly unintentionally. The Portuguese showed no mercy though; they swirled around the youngster like sharks, with his friend and partner in crime, Cristiano Ronaldo, remonstrating passionately with the referee.
Before he knew it, Rooney was out of the World Cup. So was England. The Golden Boy of the Golden Generation had been hoodwinked by the Golden Boy of world football. With the whole world chomping at the bit to oust Ronaldo from Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson had a problem in his hands; a problem that was solved by Rooney, of all people. In an act of sportsmanship which the winger had failed to show, Rooney forgave his friend. Ronaldo’s future in Manchester was secure. The rest, as they say, is history.
Heydays at Manchester United
The Madeiran had been earmarked as United’s next great winger during his time at Sporting CP and came to England in the 2003/04 season, famous for Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles. However, he shone throughout the campaign, with his showmanship and dizzying artistry on the ball endearing him to the Theatre of Dreams.
However, United had their problems in attack, and seemed to struggle without Ruud van Nistelrooy, much like how their neighbours struggle without a certain Argentine wizard today. The hawklike, bespectacled vision of Sir Alex turned to Merseyside for answers.
Few teenagers would ever have as much an impact on world football as Wayne Rooney did. His last-minute winning goal against Arsenal in the 2002/03 season had announced his arrival on the big stage, with Euro 2004 just confirming what many at Carrington already knew. And before David Moyes knew it, the kid had moved to Manchester, for a then world record sum for a teenager.
Needless to say, Roo-naldo took off right from the beginning; it was speed and power; it was skill and strength; it was pure adrenaline. By 2007, the pair had won their first Premier League title, famously shaking off all the bitterness in Germany to form a fearsome attack. Ronaldo went on to break the 20-goal barrier, with Rooney dovetailing beautifully, with 14 goals of his own. Old Trafford had become the Theatre of Dreams again.
Moscow, Rome and the Swansong
If 2006/07 was when the last great Alex Ferguson team came of age, the following season was when they reached their pinnacle. And needless to say, the two wunderkinds led their charge again. Rooney chipped in with 18 goals across all competitions, underlining his importance to the team, with relentless running and smart finishing. Ronaldo however, had finally taken off and reached a whole other level, scoring a whopping 42 goals across all competitions, winning the European Golden Shoe.
The team went on to win the Champions League that season, beating fierce rivals Chelsea in a riveting and storied final. No sooner had they won it than the press had come out with stories of Ronaldo moving to Real Madrid. Unlike most stories, however, this one was true. Fergie’s protege had outgrown his team. However, the Scotsman was no ordinary coach. He coaxed the Portuguese into staying for one more season, where United reached the final again, before losing out to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
In his final season with the club, Ronaldo scaled further heights and went on to win the Premier League title. He also scored one of the greatest European goals of all time, scoring a 40-yard scorcher against FC Porto. His partnership with Rooney and Carlos Tevez was crystallized and epitomized by their lightning fast counter-attacking goal against a hapless Arsenal, the goal underlining everything they stood for at Old Trafford.
However, his time had finally come. Ronaldo was moving to the Santiago Bernabeu for a world record sum of £80 million. He had just been crowned the FIFA World Player of the Year and was on top of the world. However, little would he have known that he would spend the rest of his career obsessing over his rivalry with the guy who came second that day; Rooney’s journey would take him to the helm of Manchester United. Ronaldo’s journey took him to an extra terrestrial two-way arcade race with a certain Lionel Messi.
Evolution and obsession
Wayne Rooney’s career didn’t fluctuate wildly from here on. Nor did his fortunes. He still kept running, still kept scoring, still kept finishing season after season where he was better than most. Yet, he was considered underwhelming. You often knew what you got from him – vision, commitment, energy and goals. However, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that greater things were always expected of him. Nevertheless, the boy has grown into a man.
After endless contract rows and accusations which almost took him to Chelsea (twice!), Rooney stayed. He had become less of a forward and more of a creator. And in time, he became the go-to man of an increasingly inadequate team, driven by one man’s charisma. Rooney had become the chief hole plugger at Manchester United. The man who lifted them out of trouble – the man who turned no points into one and one point into three.
And when on song, he did produce magic. Or rather, he does produce magic. Like every other Rooney tribute loves to remind us, who can forget his memorable, incredible overhead kick against the noisy neighbours, Manchester City? For all his feats, Rooney would probably be immortalized in stone by the club one day. And we all know what the sculpture is going to look like.
However, after nearly a decade and a half at the top flight, Wayne Rooney has slowed down considerably. Gone are the days of his typically rambunctious zeal and direct running. Today, he has become a pale, yet far wiser shadow of himself, recognizing his limitations and doing far more with brains than with brawns.
His has been an odyssey that shall be looked upon by future generations with a tinge of regret. For while he didn’t implode like Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne, “Wazza” never exploded like he was widely touted to do in the peak of his career. Yes, the captain of Manchester United has indeed come a long way. Not long enough when compared to the other peerless talent we’re talking about here, however.
On the other hand, Ronaldo had entered ‘beast mode’ by the time he left United. Leaving the Red Devils had put his aura at risk – he was no longer the undisputed king of his league. A long-haired Argentine, two years his junior, was getting all the plaudits. Whatever Ronaldo did, Messi did better, people said.
He dribbled better, passed better and scored more. This setback (only he would see it as a setback, of course), brought out the best in Ronaldo, as he put in the shift at the training ground, and became an intimidating physical specimen
Today, the man is a machine. He is a ripping athlete with blinding speed, menacing acceleration, formidable strength and a leap that leaves the rest of the world gawking. Watching Messi waltz away with not one, not two, but four Ballon d’Ors, battered and bruised the ego of a man, who had only one aim in mind – to be the best in the world.
And boy, did he stake his claim. With a scarcely believable 328 goals in 317 appearances, he has married his obsession with the kind of consistency that has seldom been matched in the history of the game. Arguably the greatest footballer in the history of the game’s most hallowed club, Ronaldo has immortalized himself with his individual feats. While winners’ medals have been hard to come by because of Barcelona’s domination, individual honours have flown in from all quarters for the winger turned goal machine.
Epilogue – Convergence?
While he may not be regarded the best in the world even after all this, Ronaldo’s case can definitely be argued. And with his star at the Bernabeu waning ever so slightly, there is a chance that Ronaldo might return to the theatre that made him what he is today.
As his football has moved from trademark egoism to wanton egotism, even he hasn’t been spared the infamous white hankie treatment by the Bernabeu faithful. With less touches than Keylor Navas during the last Clasico, and with more coverage given to his movie than his performances of late, the time looks ripe for Ronaldo to jump ship. And there is no place like home after all.
And that has been their legacy in the beautiful game. One was the wonderkid who matured with time and became a dependable soldier. The other was a kid picked from the masses, who went on to outshine and outgrow everybody else on his quest to become the best.
A journey that began at Carrington will end so differently. And while Rooney would be compared with the Dennis Laws and Bobby Charltons of the game one day, Ronaldo would be compared with the Peles and Maradonas and, well, with the Messis of the game.
And that, in a nutshell, has been their journey.
Published 26 Nov 2015, 17:54 IST