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Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004: A precocious phenomenon

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Wayne Rooney’s meteoric rise was a once-in-a-generation event. Rarely, if ever, has an English footballer’s emergence stirred such uncontrollable excitement.

The Premier League has had its fair share of precocious teenage talents but Rooney was a different breed. After introducing himself to the wider world as a 16-year-old with that goal against Arsenal, his ascent to the sport’s summit was swift and inevitable.

Within four months of stunning the then-champions with a glorious goal at Goodison Park, Rooney had made his senior England debut. He became the youngest ever goalscorer for the Three Lions before 2003 had concluded, and arrived at the European Championship the following summer as a key figure for an expectant England.

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿⏪ Wayne Rooney, 2003 👶#EURO2024 pic.twitter.com/wtUfEnvsd6

— UEFA EURO 2024 (@EURO2024) August 23, 2023

Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side headed to Portugal in confident mood. A generation dubbed golden was approaching its peak, though it was a talent barely out of school who took centre stage. That summer, Rooney was unstoppable.

England’s opening fixture saw the Three Lions face France. Les Bleus, the holders, had won two of the previous three major tournaments and despite disappointment at the World Cup two years earlier, boasted Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira among their ranks.

“For me, there was a real excitement. I wanted to go and prove myself,” Rooney said in a self-titled 2022 documentary.

“Coming out, you look across and see Zidane, Thierry Henry, (Robert) Pires. I could see in most of my teammates a bit of fear. I just couldn’t wait.”

Ahead of the game, France defender Lilian Thuram had dismissed the threat of England’s boy wonder.

“I doubt how much Rooney can give to England,” Thuram said.

“He is very young – too young for such a hard competition like this. He lacks international experience, so for England to depend on him to score their goals is dangerous. Rooney is not Michael Owen – he was a far better player on his debut for the England team.”

Like a stick into a hornet’s nest, Thuram’s comments were mightily misjudged. What was stirred at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon that evening was a one-man Scouse swarm. He tore the French to shreds, crashing into opponents, and pirouetting past Zidane. After Frank Lampard fired England ahead, Rooney won a penalty with a scintillating solo run. Starting inside his own half, he charged forward, leaving Thuram in his wake. Mikael Silvestre’s scythed challenge halted the hurtling teenager, only for David Beckham to blaze the resulting spot-kick over the bar.

“You don’t do that against France. He was doing something that was, for an English player, really, really special,” teammate Gary Neville reflected.

“He was just breathtaking. This was a different level, this was something out of this world.

“The French were unbelievable. [Zinedine] Zidane and Henry were two of the best players in the world, Thuram was one of the best defenders in the world.

“And he was ripping them to shreds. They couldn’t handle him and he was 18 years of age.”

18-year-old Wayne Rooney at EURO 2004. Magical ✨🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿#EURO2024 pic.twitter.com/rzEA7NlGz6

— UEFA EURO 2024 (@EURO2024) October 24, 2023

Zidane’s double turned the game around for France late on but it was Rooney’s performance that had tongues wagging. Thuram, in particular, had become firmly acquainted with Rooney, after a not-so-gentle introduction that saw the forward nearly decapitate the defender.

“I felt invincible. I’ve just banged right into his jaw, and then I looked back at him as if to say ‘Now you know who I am!’” Rooney recalled.

“Still to this day seeing his face, the fear of thinking ‘what am I gonna do here?’”

Thuram was not the first, or last, defender to become exasperated in their attempts to stop the striker. In England’s next fixture, he was on target twice in a 3-0 win over Switzerland. The first, headed home from Michael Owen’s centre, saw Rooney briefly become the youngest goalscorer in European Championship history. A second saw the Liverpudlian lash in an effort that bounced in off the back of Switzerland keeper Jorg Stiel.

Sven’s side were up and running.

This had been billed as England’s Golden Generation but it was the Scouse starlet who was outshining his senior teammates. Combative, confident, and with little regard for reputation, Rooney believed wholeheartedly that he had no equal.

“I remember in that tournament, at 18, thinking to myself, ‘I’m the best player in the world, there’s no one better than me.’ And I believe at that time I was.”

Croatia were next to feel Rooney’s wrath. After falling behind to Niko Kovač’s early opener, Rooney turned the game around before half-time. First, he set up Paul Scholes to equalise before a fierce hit proved too powerful for Vladimir Vasilj to handle. A second to seal the win came after the interval, as Rooney exchanged passes with Michael Owen and burst in behind to score.

⏪🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 Wayne Rooney vs Croatia, EURO 2004

What a performance 😍#EURO2024 pic.twitter.com/GWe4Pz0BOV

— UEFA EURO 2024 (@EURO2024) July 17, 2023

England’s hopes appeared in a safe place and sat upon the broad shoulders that defied the greenness of their exhilarating emerging star. Disaster, however, struck. In the first half of a quarter-final with host nation Portugal, the forward fractured his metatarsal – a familiar fate for England stars of the early noughties – as he duelled with Jorge Andrade. Unable to continue, Rooney’s – and soon England’s – tournament was over. The Portuguese progressed on penalties and the Three Lions were left to wonder what could have been.

In those summer months, two decades ago, Rooney reminded us why we love football. This was a player who took to a major tournament as if it were a kickabout on the Croxteth council estate where he was raised. He was brutish, balletic and brilliant. A fearless phenomenon who, for an unforgettable few weeks in the Portuguese sunshine, made anything appear possible.

Read – Noughties Nines: Wayne Rooney – An inimitable emergence

See more – Unforgettable Debuts: Rooney-mania reaches Old Trafford

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