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Wayne Rooney: from hero to bonfire villain

Every November, England's southeast have cheeky fun by burning a villain in effigy. In 2003, it was Saddam Hussein, brandishing a machine gun in one hand and rocket in the other, went up in flames in 2003 and Tony Blair in 2004. This time, it is Wayne Rooney, England's best footballer, in decades.

sports Updated: Nov 08, 2010 12:48 IST

Every November, England's southeast have cheeky fun by burning a villain in effigy. In 2003, it was Saddam Hussein, brandishing a machine gun in one hand and rocket in the other, went up in flames in 2003 and Tony Blair in 2004. This time, it is Wayne Rooney, England's best footballer, in decades.

Rooney has not provoked or sanctioned wars. He can be uncouth but he's no dictator. And his only weapons of mass destruction are his nimble goal-scoring feet and his powerful, potato-white physique. But he, too, is now perceived as fair game, a figure of fun and a tarnished icon.

If he's looking for reasons for his fall from grace, which he may not be, because deep introspection is not Rooney's thing, the player who has been English football's hottest property since he scored a wonder-goal against Arsenal as a 16-year-old could blame the prostitutes who recounted in lurid detail in Britain's ruthless tabloids about how he supposedly bedded them in a Manchester hotel last year, when his wife was expecting their child, Kai.

Or he could point to the remarkably public recent spat over his wages with his club Manchester United. Rooney's tough bargaining and rumors that he might sin by selling his services to United's cross-town rival Manchester City infuriated fans of the Red Devils.

Vandals daubed "JOIN CITY AND YOU'RE DEAD" in red paint on a Rooney poster in the city's center. More frighteningly, about 30 men, gathered in protest outside the shuttered gates of the high-security mansion, often called "Waynesor Castle," that Rooney and his wife share.

Perhaps most of all, Rooney could also cite the sudden and largely unexplained disappearance of his ability to score. Had England's great white hope performed brilliantly at the World Cup in South Africa this June then fans might have found it easier to overlook his perceived greed and flaws as a man - as they did with other footballing rogues like mercurial Frenchman Eric Cantona, who also played at United, or the English tragicomic midfielder Paul Gascoigne, affectionally known as "Gazza" and loved for his footballing inventiveness despite his off-field torments with booze and mental illness.

As with bonfires, England's chattering classes have also long enjoyed building up public figures only to subsequently burn them down. That is now true of Rooney, too. "He gives us very, very, very good publicity," says Charles Laver of the Edenbridge Bonfire Society, which helps to organize the town's annual commemoration with fireworks and bonfires. "That's life, people come in and out of favor," Laver added. "He's strayed from the straight and narrow and got in the news."

At age 8, he was already wowing with his skills and by 11, Rooney was playing against boys three years older. At 15, he was playing 18-year-olds and was given time off school to train full-time with Everton. In some ways, even at age 25, Rooney still gives the same impression as when he burst into the nation's consciousness with that 2002 goal, that of being a teenager locked into a man's body.

He neither votes nor reads the papers and leaves matters to his advisers. "I don't really bother about those things much," he says. "I know I've got three apartments in Florida and a villa in Marbella (Spain). But I haven't seen any of them, just the photographs." Like other footballers, he has a "passion" for cars. He likes the TV and says he plays online games at night, logging in with a pseudonym after once making the mistake of using his real name, eliciting hundreds of messages. "I'm brilliant at doing absolutely nothing," he says in the biography, "My Story So Far."

Luckily for him, he's brilliant at football, too. His right-footed drive from 30 yards (meters) against Arsenal made him the youngest player to score a Premiership goal. Not long afterward, Rooney signed his first professional contract, multiplying his wage nearly 200-fold from 75 pounds to at least 13,000 pounds per week, at just 17.

He was England's youngest international and youngest-ever scorer. His 34 goals last season for United helped distract from the indebted club's questionable decision to sell stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez to Real Madrid and to Man City, respectively.

Then, Rooney the goal-scoring machine seized up. At the World Cup, Rooney's zip and touch were gone. He still charged around, as he does, for the ball but seemed lost, a shadow of himself. He scored in practice but not when it counted in matches.

England tumbled out in its first knock-out game, losing 4-1 to Germany.