Stars in doubt

A few leading men of world football seem uncertain to play in the 2014 World Cup. In the case of some, it is a question of form. In others, it is an urgent matter of fitness. By Brian Glanville.

As the World Cup approaches, one established star after another is placed in some kind of doubt, whether it be thanks to lurking injury or surely on the basis of form. In the case of England’s Wayne Rooney, it is somewhat embarrassingly on the basis of potential form. He has come under serious criticism from two former England heroes, Paul Scholes, who had played beside him at Manchester United for many years, and Mick Channon, long since retiring to become very successful racehorse owner and trainer, but once back in the 1970s a dashing, sprinting right sided attacker for England, Southampton and Manchester City.

Neither has minced his words. Scholes, who till quite recently was actually playing alongside Rooney for Manchester United, has declared: “Wayne was in the Everton team at 16 years of age. Since then, he’s played at EURO 2004, two World Cups, Premier League and Champions League every year at United.

“There’s a chance he’s worn out. Wayne’s peak may have been a lot younger than what we’d expect of footballers traditionally. Age 28 or 29 has been the normal peak… Wayne might be a player who’d retire come 31 or 32, given the amount of football he’s played… I don’t think Wayne will be able to play centre forward until he’s 34 or 35… I’m not saying Wayne needs to be dropped, but if form doesn’t get up to scratch in the warm-ups, or in the first game of the World Cup, it’ll be interesting to see if the England management team has the balls to make that decision. He’s played in eight World Cup games without a goal. You expect more of him. If Wayne is going to be one of the best footballers in the world, this World Cup is where he has to produce. Maybe Wayne has felt the pressure of playing for England in the last two World Cups when he’s not scored.”

And Channon? “For me, Wayne Rooney is not the strong link, he’s the weak link. I’ve got a lot of time for him, but he’s never delivered in World Cups, has he? This time he’s got to come to the party. It’s time to step up, boy.”

But will he? Can he? Especially in terms of tactics? Roy Hodgson, the England manager, has said he wants to deploy a spearhead of Rooney and Liverpool’s young lively and incisive striker, Daniel Sturridge, with Rooney playing just behind the younger man. But would it work? Hodgson is optimistic: “We’ve seen an awful lot of the Sturridge-Suarez partnership (for Liverpool) but not a lot of Rooney-Sturridge because they haven’t had a lot of time to play together. Now’s our chance.”

Or is it? I am very doubtful, remembering what happened when England played Chile and lost at Wembley. In the first half, both players were on the field, and Sturridge looked uneasy and ineffectual. In the second half, with Rooney off the field, it was a new and lively Sturridge all too clearly relieved of the psychological and perhaps strategic burden of playing with Rooney.

It is all too true that Rooney has flopped in the last two World Cups though in his defence it should be said that he definitely wasn’t fully fit in Germany, when he got himself sent off in the quarterfinal match against Portugal. Four years later, he had an unhappy time in South Africa, once unwisely responding in kind to the England fans who were cheering him after his team’s drab display against the United States. Truth to tell, he has excelled in only one major tournament, the European Championship finals in Portugal, when his splendid form seemed likely to enable England to win the Cup. Only for him to be kicked out of that match early on by the Portuguese; with England in his expensive absence proceeding ultimately to lose on penalties.

In Rooney’s case, it is a question of form. In others, such as that of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, it is an urgent matter of fitness. Suarez was hurt in a tackle while playing for Liverpool against Newcastle United, with the fear that he had suffered serious medial ligament damage, which would disastrously have meant an absence from the playing field for 16 weeks. Fortunately, the damage has proved less severe, but although Suarez and the Uruguayan camp are predictably optimistic, some medical experts are not.

Much less optimistic is Mark Leather, the physiotherapist at Bolton Wanderers. A mere three weeks recovery time for a meniscus (cartilage) injury is “pushing it.” He points out that “recovering from surgery requires a combination of rest and careful management… Suarez is likely to have had only some cartilage removed. It can take up to six weeks for a player to recover… he will probably use a Game Ready, a wrap that can compress and ice the knee for long periods at a time.”

It is always dangerous and potentially self-defeating to make light of a manifest injury. In the World Cup Finals of 2002 in the Far East, David Beckham played for England although only weeks earlier he had had a metatarsal in his foot broken while playing a European Cup tie by — his eternal nemesis — an Argentine opponent, at Old Trafford . It did not stop him from scoring the decisive penalty versus Argentina themselves, but when Brazil were met in the quarterfinals, he jumped out of the way of the advancing Ronaldinho, which led to a crucial goal.

But what of potential form? Lionel Messi has recently been given a huge new contract by Barcelona even if, with injury impeding him, this has not been one of his better seasons. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether he can give his remarkable best for Argentina in a World Cup, surely the crucial criterion. It certainly didn’t happen four years ago in South Africa, when Diego Maradona, once a huge star but an erratic manager, stuck him out on the left wing when, as we know, Barcelona give him a free floating role.

Can Argentina’s current manager Sabella afford to do so when he has such gifted strikers as Higuain and Maradona’s son-in-law Sergio Aguero available? There is plainly an embarrassment of riches and it may not be possible to indulge Messi with the free role, which he has at Barcelona.

For Italy, there is the enigma of Mario Balotelli, a notable force in the last European Championship, who has just been shamefully abused while training at Italy’s Coverciano centre just outside Florence by venomous racists. He wasn’t taken by a surely over-cautious Marcello Lippi to the last World Cup and remains an unpredictable, sometimes explosive, figure. On form, he can work wonders for Italy, but the temperament remains forever suspect.

And what of Spain’s injured Diego Costa?