It's just after 1 p.m. in the Liverpool suburb of Croxteth, a place that won't win any prizes for urban beauty. The local pub is called "The Dog and Gun." All that remains of its sign is the last word; the rest lies in a rubbish-strewn front yard. The door is charred and the place boarded up. At this time of day, pigeons are the only customers at the adjacent kiosk, which is wreathed in a tangle of barbed wire. The only sign of human life is a young man with cropped hair and a treetrunk neck standing outside the William Hill betting shop. He's wearing a gray tracksuit. It seems to glisten, even under the gloomy skies of northern England.
A rusty old Honda Civic, once presumably sky blue, pulls up. A girl with ashblond hair gets out. Under her parka she's wearing pink pajamas and pink slippers. "You wanker!" she yells. "You're losing our money and our kid hasn't even had anything to eat yet."
The man in the tracksuit doesn't reply. He walks towards her. She carries on shouting at him, but backpedals slightly, keeping out of range. A couple of minutes later he tosses a piece of paper in her direction. It's a £5 note. She picks it up, hurries back to her car and drives off with a smile on her face: a cross between despair and amusement. He stomps back to the betting shop.
Wayne Rooney, Croxteth born and bred, learned to play football on these streets. He was the one who got away, who escaped. He was more talented than all the others, and worked harder. But sometimes he seems nostalgic for the world he left behind - mostly of an evening in his enormous luxury home, when the quiet of their affluent neighborhood would disquiet his fiancée Coleen. "She gets scared," he told his biographer Sue Evison, "so we got a Chow called Fizz. Now I bring Coleen up to bed, and watch a DVD while she falls asleep."
Rooney never complained about sleepless nights in his Croxteth days. In fact, he never complained about anything. Not about the poverty-stricken housing estate, where the local supermarket stocks frozen food but virtually no fruit or vegetables. Not about his father, a construction worker who suffered from chronic unemployment. Not about his mother, who paid the family's bills by working as a cleaner and kitchen helper. Not about the run-down boxing gym owned by his uncle, Richie Rooney, where Wayne started training at the age of seven, and where the punch bags have taken such a hammering that they're now held together with tape. Not about his grandmother, who looked after him for most of his childhood and clouted him around his jug ears when he didn't do what he was told. And not about Merseyside's urban planners, who ostensibly forgot about playgrounds in Croxteth. When the local kids wanted a kickabout, they had to find a patch of grass on nearby wasteland or toss their coats down as goalposts and play in the street. It rains a lot in Liverpool. They usually chose the street.
So, not surprisingly, Rooney wasted little breath on recriminations when - in the 78th minute of his team's league match on April 29 - Chelsea's Portuguese defender Paulo Ferreira clattered into him, causing him to fall so awkwardly that he broke two bones in his right foot. Leading 3-0 at the time, Chelsea were just 10 minutes from defending their Premiership crown, but the fans' cheers suddenly stuck in their throats. A stunned silence settled over the crowd, a shared sentiment that England coach Sven-Göran Eriksson subsequently summed up in a single word: "Shit."
In a seismic shift, opponents and adversaries united, hostilities gave way to anxiety, concern, panic. "O God, please, not Wayne," shot through the mind of Chelsea's agile midfielder Joe Cole. There was a universal dawning in the stadium that Chelsea might have won the league, but that England had probably lost the World Cup. Since this 78th minute, a whole nation has been yearning for a miracle, pinning their hopes on Rooney's tenacity and resilience, hoping against hope that his genes and willpower will restore him to fitness in half the time required by mere mortals. Even the irresponsible journalistic hooligans from the Sun were suddenly meek as lambs, handing out bumper stickers that read: "Pray for Wayne - get well roon."
Wayne Rooney learned one lesson early on. Strength and resolve were needed; otherwise you'd be steamrollered into submission on the streets of Croxteth.
You have to be big and tough to survive on these mean streets. The day his son was born, Wayne's father - thrilled by his son's huge hands and ears - cried out: "Look! We've got ourselves a prizefighter!" The Rooney clan with its working class, Irish-Catholic roots had produced another slugger. Before discovering women and drink, Wayne Rooney Sr. had been top dog at two local boxing clubs, St. Theresa and Holy Name. He was an animal in the ring - more bull than butterfly. "He never surrendered," says his brother Richie, the boxing trainer, who also has short hair and the clan's trademark blue eyes. "And he always landed nice, clean blows to his opponent's face."
They don't make boxing gloves for babies. So father Wayne Sr. bought his son an Everton football shirt. When he was six months old the younger Rooney was baptized at the Everton Fan Club headquarters. Around the same time, his dad took him to the stadium to watch his first match.
Boxing genes and the conviction that life is a battlefield - where you have to accept and mete out punishment until the Good Lord sounds the final bell - were the ideal foundations for Rooney's rise to soccer stardom. In Britain, fighting spirit is still seen as the greatest virtue a footballer can possess. The South Americans might revere great technique and wizardry in their football idols, but for generations the English believed that these ball artists were degrading a man's game with their fancy footwork. Players with skills like that were treated like lepers by national team coaches. Northern Ireland's George Best, a mesmerizing dribbler worshipped by girls as the fifth Beatle, was greeted in stadiums with chants of "Georgie, where's your handbag?" The likes of Best were cannon fodder for the notorious two-footed, flying tackle, executed to perfection by sinister characters like Vinny Jones. A Wimbledon player in the 1980s, Jones once famously threatened to bite off Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish's ear and "spit in the hole." Language like this earned Jones the starring role in a video entitled "Soccer's Hard Men," a how-to guide for aspiring hatchet men: "Ideally, you should aim your studs at your opponent's Achilles," he explained with the aplomb of an executioner, adding "If you're cute, the ref won't see you." It stormed the video charts.
Like his family and most Everton supporters, the young Wayne Rooney believed that nothing in life is free, bar a hatful of problems. When it came to funds and silverware, Everton's local rivals - the mighty Liverpool - had been playing in a different universe for decades. In the eyes of fans, Everton were "so poor, they didn't even have a pot to piss in." To have any chance of survival at all, the club had to find - and nurture - its own talent.
Ray Hall has run Everton's Youth Academy for the past 11 years. Painted in the club's blue and white, his office is a prefab box at the training ground. Photos of Hall's two daughters wearing mortarboards - both have doctorates in law - adorn the wall behind his desk. The rest of the office is a shrine to the game, lined with photos, trophies, and his "Lady Luck" Chinese figurines.
Hall, whose father labored in the dockyards, is a respected figure. His pinstriped suit matches his navy blue Mercedes. Year in, year out, he is besieged by hordes of parents harboring dreams of stardom for their sons. One Monday at the end of September 1994, the Everton scout Bob Pendleton, a retired train driver, turned up at Hall's office. Alongside him were Rooney's father and the boy with the Dumbo ears. "He was shy, but when I saw that Bob was trembling, spilling his tea all over the place because he was so excited, I knew we had a very special talent," said Hall.
As Hall soon realized, his new recruit had the makings of a world-class player. It was at an away game in Manchester, an eight-a-side match played on a small pitch. The coaches were standing on one side, a few hundred spectators on the other. A cross came flying into the opposing penalty area. The ball went behind Rooney, so Hall expected him to chase after it. Instead, the 10 year-old pivoted in a flash, catapulted himself into the air and - with a spectacular overhead kick - lashed the ball into the back of the net. "There was total silence in the ground," Hall remembers. "Then one parent started to clap, and soon everybody was clapping like thunder. Even the other team's parents."
According to Hall, the boy was more humble than cocky - despite his feats. And he was determined to improve his game. "After school he walked to our ground," Hall says, "got changed, and then started an hour before the others. When the session was over he stayed out there and kept on going. We often had to send him home and lock the gates to make sure he didn't sneak back in."
English football had been waiting for years for someone like Rooney. He seemed to have it all: the strength and determination of a traditional hard man coupled with the touch, technique and intuition of a virtuoso. The boy could dribble blind - without even looking down. He was faster on the ball than other players were off it. And if he happened to lose possession, he scampered after the ball and retrieved it. His teammates dubbed him "The Dog." The moment he approached the penalty area he would shoot - hard, without steadying himself, and usually straight into the net. But above all he had something that is the mark of true greatness: He was never flustered or ruffled. He always had time.
When he was 9 he played with the 11year-olds; when he was 14, with the 17-year-olds. At the age of 15 he lined up in Everton's youth team, and at 16 was selected as a substitute for the first team. On October 19, 2002, he made his Premiership debut: a home fixture against Arsenal. The Londoners were league champions, undefeated in 30 games. Rooney came off the bench in the 81st minute. Nine minutes later he latched onto a pass from his teammate Thomas Gravesen, set the ball up, and unleashed a screamer. The ball rose straight as an arrow and rocketed over David Seaman's head into the net. Even Arsenal's manager, the furrow-browed Arsène Wenger, could not conceal his admiration at the post-match press conference. He conceded, sportingly: "Losing our record is a big disappointment, but at least we lost to a special goal from a special talent. There is no goalkeeper in the world who would have stopped that! He is the biggest English talent I've seen since I took over at Highbury."
You didn't have to be psychic to predict what happened next. Every reporter capable of mustering a microphone, pen or camera was queuing up to interview the prodigy with the bulldog face.
"After the game the coach came in and said: 'Wayne doesn't do talking. Not today, not in the future,'" recalls Ian Ross, Everton's press officer. Ross sits in his office deep in the bowels of Goodison Park, a run-down stadium where undertakers and demolition companies compete for advertising space. Ross remembers how Rooney virtually broke down after being named "Man of the Match" on the BBC, aware that there was no more escaping the media glare. Fearless on the pitch, offstage the striker cowered in a back room for 40 minutes, grimly clinging to the table, unable to utter a word. "His face was totally white and he was sweating," says Ross.
Rooney became even less enamored of the media when tabloid reporters caught him frequenting Liverpool's brothels. "His conquests included a 48-year-old grandmother, a girl wearing pink-colored lingerie and a mother of six in a cowgirl costume," the Sun reported. One visit set him back £45. Rooney paid with a £50 note and waited for the change. Instead of a tip, he left an autograph: "To Charlotte, I shagged you on the 28th of December. Love, Wayne Rooney."
The party Rooney threw for his girlfriend Coleen's 18th birthday proved another minor disaster. By 2 a.m. the revelers had drunk the hotel's bar dry. One of Rooney's uncles clambered onto a table and raucously demanded refills. When the servers hesitated, a mass brawl broke out, with Rooney in the thick of things. "He did what all 18-year-olds all over the world love doing," said Everton spokesman Ross. "Drink, fight and chase women. He was being stupid - everybody in Liverpool knew who Wayne Rooney was."
Raises that propelled his wages from £80 a week to a giddying £50,000 proved the final straw. Rooney needed some serious minding and Paul Stretford, his personal manager, saw that he got it. He recruited a team of specialists to steer Rooney from the backstreets into the fast lane.
They achieved their goal by surrounding him with a wall of silence. An eminently sensible step. Today the English are more than tolerant of Rooney's tight lips. During the quarterfinal against Portugal at Euro 2004, he broke a bone in his foot, David Beckham skied a penalty over the bar and England were dumped out of the competition. That day convinced an entire nation that only one man was capable of leading their best England team in 40 years to World Cup victory: Wayne Rooney, the street-fighting kid with an Fword habit.
Since his move to Manchester United, Rooney's feet have been able to do the talking. And silence suits him perfectly. There's more than just the World Cup at stake. He has signed deals worth millions with Nike, Electronic Arts, Pringles and Coca-Cola. British children polled in a recent survey named Rooney the most famous creature in the universe. He's set to earn more than £100 million over the next few years.
That's a lot of money. But after breaking his foot, Rooney scarcely seemed to be totting up his losses. Even for a man who can blow £700,000 at the bookies, such fortunes probably still seem unfathomable. With his baby-blue eyes, Rooney looked more like a kid with a broken toy. He had dreamed of holding the trophy aloft on July 9 - and a whole country was dreaming with him.
Now only a miracle can help. Sun readers are deep in prayer and footballing God Beckham is calling with tips from Madrid. For Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard, Rooney is one of the world's best players: "He's our key man. It would be a disaster to have to go to Germany without him. If that happens, we can forget about our successful tournament."
England coach Eriksson is determined to take his talisman to Germany, even if - as he says - Rooney is only fit for the Final. For the first time ever, the whole country agrees with the quarrelsome Swede - with the exception of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. Rooney is the Scot's main man too. Another disappointing season, and Ferguson might find himself out of a job.
What's more, the specter of fractured metatarsals and World Cups already haunts the United coach. In 2002, his playmaker Beckham struggled through the tournament with a similar injury, and failed to regain full fitness for months. Beckham, however, had broken his foot at the start of April, a full three weeks earlier than Rooney.
But grand dreams and dramas have a way of suspending logic and medical probability. To aid his chances of recovery, Rooney is no longer spending his nights with girlfriend Coleen, the DVDs and his dog Fizz. He's spending them alone - in an oxygen tent.
Michael Jackson has exposed himself to this treatment, as well. And has looked green around the gills ever since.