London, Oct 14: When Wayne Rooney set alight the 2004 European Championship as an 18-year-old, becoming the youngest goalscorer in the tournament's history, no crystal ball could have foretold that the brilliant but flawed gem of English football would go on to become such a disappointment and liability for his country.
Rooney's four goals in Portugal seven years ago were his last for England in the finals of a major championship. Since then, the 2006 World Cup, the 2008 Euros that England failed to even qualify for and the 2010 World Cup have been and gone, all without another goal from Rooney and with his country still waiting for his teenage promise to translate into a tournament performance to remember for good reasons, not bad.
Truth is, that day might never come. As absurd as this would have seemed in 2004, Rooney's England career is now at risk of largely passing him by. With his speed, strength, rubber-ball energy levels and precocious ability for scoring, Rooney looked destined to be a much-loved England great and, with 28 goals in 73 appearances, a genuine threat to Bobby Charlton's record of 49 goals for the Three Lions.
Instead, he is leaving a growing trail of regrets and “what ifs?”
Rooney will ask himself that question if England manager Fabio Capello decides, as perhaps he should, that he isn't worth taking to Euro 2012 because the Manchester United forward won't be able to play in the first three games because he is banned for losing his temper, yet again.
Rooney, caged at home, watching the matches on television and boiling over with frustration at his own foolishness. It doesn't bear thinking about.
But if Capello shows a hitherto well-hidden tender streak and takes England's best player anyway, as perhaps he should, then Rooney will still be asking himself that question if England performs poorly without him and is sent home early, before he has had a chance to play.
Rooney, caged in the dugout, boiling over with frustration in the knowledge that his next and perhaps last chance to shine on the international stage won't come until the 2014 World Cup in Brazil—if England qualifies and if, at 28, he is still world-class then. That scenario doesn't bear thinking about, either.
Fact is, Capello need not and should not determine now whether Rooney will be a waste of space or could still prove useful in Poland and Ukraine, co-hosts of next year's tournament.
As much as that debate sells newspapers—British media obsessed about it on Friday, the day after UEFA's disciplinary panel delivered its verdict—it doesn't make a vast amount of sense 238 days before the opening match in Warsaw on June 8.
An injury to Rooney between now and then, especially closer to the time, could render the whole issue moot.
And England won't learn who its opponents are until Dec. 2, when the draw is made. Only then, with a better idea of whether England has a realistic chance of surviving its group games, will it become clearer whether Rooney is worth taking for the knockout stages, after he's served his ban.
So, at this moment, the question is not whether he should go but rather whether he shouldn't. Should Capello, a known disciplinarian, leave him out as punishment for his impetuous and nasty little kick at Montenegro defender Miodrag Dzudovic that deservedly drew the ban?
The answer is no.
Armchair psychologists can speculate all they like about whether abandoning Rooney might teach him a lesson, provide the kick to somehow transform the angry man into a maturer one. Moralists can also thunder that he has let England down once too often now and so shouldn't get the honor of a seat on its plane.
But that would be hypocritical. No one should feign surprise. Be it by stomping on Ricardo Carvalho (2006 World Cup, red card) or by venting to pitch-side cameras (2010 World Cup; West Ham vs. Man United in April, two-match ban), Rooney has time and again shown the beast that lurks within him. As much as Rooney tries to control it, his hot temper is part of him and part of his game, perhaps even a necessary part of his game, a fuel for his football.
Capello can't have one without the other. He can be disappointed but he cannot pretend he didn't know. He shares responsibility with Rooney for the ban because he fielded him—hoping for goals but also knowing that there's always the risk that he might see red.
The Italian's job, the one he's paid so well for, between now and next summer is to judge how big that risk is. If Rooney is uninjured and playing as well as he has been this season for United, and if England's path to the knockout stages looks negotiable, then the risk of selecting him will seem smaller and the potential rewards greater.
In that case, Capello will take him. Having crossed all fingers and toes that England get through the group games without him, a fresh Rooney could then do something special in the knockout stage.
Or something stupid. All that promise that shone so brightly for England in 2004 could go unfulfilled once again.
With Rooney, you never quite know.