Wayne Rooney a ghost of English tournament failures past

By Tommy Martin

While it’s entirely coincidental that Wayne Rooney’s international career is being commemorated just days after the events marking Armistice Day, you could say that they shall also not grow old who go to play in MLS; that age shall not weary them that can still bang in goals in the Eastern Conference long after they are washed up in Europe.

All acts of remembrance seem to be problematic these days. No sooner have we moved on from accusations of poppy fascism and excessive militarism than people are wondering whether Rooney’s international career deserves the full ceremonial honours to be laid on in tonight’s friendly between England and the USA.

At some stage this evening Rooney will earn his 120th and final cap, a full two years since his previous one, in a belated act of gratitude on the part of England’s FA towards their record international goalscorer.

Many have questioned whether this particular commemoration is appropriate (yes, days after giant, centre-circle-sized poppies invaded sports pitches all over the UK, a bouquet of flowers and 10 minutes action for Wazza is considered ‘too much’ by some).

This reticence might be due to the fact Rooney’s international career is a contested history in itself. Sure, there was the carefree early promise of Euro 2004, and the 53 international goals, beating Bobby Charlton’s longstanding record. 

But perhaps the English public, newly besotted with their fresh-faced, thrusting young team, see Rooney as an unwelcome reminder of the ego-driven, so-called golden generation. 

Rooney is a ghost of tournament failures past, returned from beyond the international grave like a zombie wielding multiple dog-eared, ghost-written autobiographies.

That, and the fact the whole thing is supposedly cheapening the value of an international cap.

Such was the take of Peter Shilton, who has more of them than any other Englishman.

“I think there are better ways to do it,” Shilton told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. 

“We could have a presentation on the pitch. I think if he was picked on merit, fair enough. But I don’t think you can give caps out like gifts.”

While Shilton believes the international cap should remain pegged to the gold standard, alas its real value fluctuates wildly. 

Take the three Republic of Ireland ones in the possession of Declan Rice, which have acquired junk status as the West Ham youngster edges closer to declaring for England.

For every Rice, there are many more Kevin Kilbanes and James McCleans, for whom each cap is a crown jewel. But it’s hard not escape the conclusion that, for many, international caps are only worth what you can get for them in return. 

Just as the call of king and country once helped reckless imperial warmongers send young men to a pointless death, so too does international football’s talk of duty and service mask the trading of a marketable commodity.

If ‘futile trench warfare’ is a good description of our Nations League campaign to date, most conscripts to the Irish soccer cause march happily off to battle regardless. But while we always suspected that the Cascarinos, Townsends, and Lawros found playing for Ireland a mutually beneficial arrangement, the situation with Rice has underlined the increasingly mercenary nature of the international ranks. 

Granted, Rice does claim to be genuinely torn about where his international future lies, although it is striking how the pull of Ireland has diminished as his chances of making the England squad have grown, and as his contract saga at West Ham has drawn on.

Not to blame Rice for any of this. But the fact a young player’s earning potential and future transfer value to his club is significantly affected by the likelihood of his playing for one country over another does tend to drag lofty notions of national pride down to the bottom line. And beloved Irish grannies are likely to be further marginalised in future as potential earnings increase.

Which is why the cry has gone out this week that Martin O’Neill should lasso 18-year-old Southampton Michael Obafemi to the Irish cause by capping him in the Nations League game against Denmark on Monday. 

The thinking here appears to be that if an Irish cap is worth so little in the current marketplace, we might as well use it as part of a people-smuggling operation to bundle young starlets into the boot of the Irish bus, to emerge, blinking and terrified, on the training ground at Abbotstown.

For a clear-eyed and unemotional verdict on international football’s instrinsic value we turn to the masters of the billable minutes themselves, the legal profession.

One of the many juicy details contained in Der Spiegel’ s recent Football Leaks reports concerned Bayern Munich seeking legal advice as to whether, in the event of them leaving Uefa as part of a new-fangled European Super League, they would still have to release players for international duty.

The law firm in question, Cleary Gottlieb, responded not by telling Bayern that they’d be stone mad to try and deny their players the ultimate honour, but by pointing out that, as playing for their national team at World Cups and European Championships enables players to “increase their value (and salary),” stopping them would lead to lawsuits based on restraint of trade. Case closed.

Which brings us back to ‘The Wayne Rooney Foundation International’ between England and USA, to give it its proper name. Rooney’s final cap, while not based on merit, isn’t quite a gift. The FA get to sell tickets on the back of a hastily tacked-on farewell angle, Rooney’s charity gets a few bob (though not from ticket sales, which the FA are keeping to themselves), and the fans get to do a little more commemorating.

Even if in Rooney’s case it’s not quite a case of ‘lest we forget’, more forgotten but not gone.

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