England strong: Pele

Pele sees Wayne Rooney as Sven-Goran Eriksson's most dangerous weapon but feels England is COLLECTIVELY strong enough to cope without him and reach the final in Germany, writes ANDY HAMPSON.

Football legend Pele believes England can overcome the loss of Wayne Rooney to reach the final of this summer's World Cup in Germany. The great Brazilian and three-time World Cup winner regards his native country as favourites but has been impressed by England's progress in recent years. He sees Wayne Rooney as Sven-Goran Eriksson's most dangerous weapon but feels the side is collectively strong enough to cope without him. Rooney, 20, is still likely to travel with the squad but will miss at least the group fixtures after breaking a metatarsal just six weeks before the tournament.

"In the last four years, there is no doubt England have improved a lot," Pele, 65, told PA Sport. "They have a good chance to get to the final. Unfortunately, England have a problem with Rooney having broken his foot. He is a fantastic player and is a big loss for England.

England do not have anyone at the same level at the moment. This is a big problem but even without him I think England are a very strong team for this World Cup."

Pele was the inspiration for Brazil's first World Cup win as a 17-year-old in 1958. He collected another winner's medal four years later and was again outstanding in the magnificent side of 1970. Yet he too endured his fair share of injury agony. He burst on to the scene in sensational style in Sweden in 1958 but his semifinal hat-trick and final brace came after a knee injury had ruled him out of the opening games. A groin problem limited him to just two appearances in 1962 and he came in for some rough treatment as Brazil were eliminated prematurely in 1966.

Pele can empathise with Rooney and believes England boss Eriksson is right to take him even if he cannot feature until the latter stages. "I think Eriksson is right because it will give confidence to the team. In my first World Cup in 1958, I did not play the first games in Sweden because I was injured. But then I came in and the same could happen to Rooney. What he has is a little more complicated than what I had. I twisted my knee, he broke his foot, but today the technology and medicine are much better than before. I think Rooney is very important for the competition, not just for England."

With Rooney's regular international partner Michael Owen also needing to prove his fitness after overcoming a similar injury, Eriksson has gambled by including untried 17-year-old Theo Walcott in his squad. The pacy Arsenal striker has not played first-team football since being signed by the Premiership club in January and is very much an unknown quantity. Few outside Brazil had heard of Pele before 1958 but the Brazilian does not feel their two cases can be directly compared. He said: "Nobody has seen him play, even his teammates have not played a game with him. It was different for me because when I was 16 I played in a tournament against Argentina, so when I was at the World Cup I had played several games. It is difficult to say something about how he is going to perform but he was selected because he is a good player."

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Brazil shirt numbers The Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) has released the World Cup 2006 shirt numbers of its squad. Unlike in other countries, the announcement of shirt numbers prior to the squad's departure for the tournament is a much publicised and eagerly awaited occasion in Brazil. Traditionally shirt numbers one to 11 indicate the manager's preferred first squad that will start the tournament. If Carlos Alberto Parreira (Pic. left) does not break from the past, the following is the Brazilian first team as the South American nation seeks its sixth title:

1. Dida, 2. Cafu, 3. Lucio, 4. Juan, 5. Emerson, 6. Roberto Carlos, 7. Adriano, 8. Kaka, 9. Ronaldo, 10. Ronaldinho and 11. Ze Roberto. Promising full-back Cicinho and young striker Robinho, both of Real Madrid, will be sporting shirt numbers 13 and 23.

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