On a day (May 17, 2017) where Ronaldo broke Jimmy Greaves’ record for most goals in European leagues, the younger Wayne Rooney cut a forlorn figure against Southampton in the Premier League.
In a season where he went from a guaranteed starter for England and Manchester United to a peripheral figure, Rooney was given two starts in succession, and while he managed to score against Spurs, looked off the pace once more. Rooney has scored only 8 goals in 37 games in all competitions this season so far, the same number he scored in 2002-03, when he was 17 years old.
Meanwhile, it would be hard to bet against Ronaldo picking up a fifth Ballon d’Or award by the end of the year in another outstanding season for the Portuguese forward, which has saw him score consecutive hat-tricks in the Champions League knockout stages.
How did it get to this point for 32-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo and 31-year-old Wayne Rooney?
The Beginnings – Euro 2004
It may have been close, but by the time of their meeting in the quarter-finals of Euro 2004, it was clear who was considered the bigger talent between Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo had been impressive at Euro 2004 but Rooney had taken the tournament by storm, scoring four goals in the group stages.
Portugal’s Jorge Andrade referred to Cristiano Ronaldo as “our Wayne Rooney”, and nobody batted an eyelid.
In Ronaldo’s first press conference at the tournament, he faced more questions about Rooney than himself.
After an outstanding debut for United, Ronaldo had developed a bit of a reputation as a showboater, lacking in end product, comparing to Rooney (scarcely believable today) with an overreliance on tricks, in particular his favoured stepover move.
When Rooney scythed down Ronaldo in a Premier League match after a spell of Ronaldo showboating, it showed what Rooney thought of Ronaldo’s style at the time, with Rooney’s more ‘mature’ style expected to age well. Ronaldo said he remembered that tackle “very well”.
Ronaldo’s style at the time rubbed people the wrong way in English football, Ashley Cole was particularly dismissive of the young Portuguese forward, recalling his meeting with him in the Premier League “I gave him a hard tackle and he was gone, to be honest.”
Although those that worked with Ronaldo understood he was made of stronger stuff, particularly Gary Neville and Sir Alex Ferguson. Little did his opponents know that Ronaldo was practising stepovers with weights tied to his feet, displaying the kind of work ethic that would make him what he was later.
The match finished 2-2 AET, with England losing on penalties. Rooney was taken off after 27 minutes with a broken foot. Ronaldo showed glimpses of his ability, which he would show again by scoring the opening goal in the semi-final against the Netherlands, with a soon to be signature header, not typical of that of a showboater.
Portugal would lose the final to Greece and Ronaldo’s tears would be broadcast across Europe. Wayne Rooney would sign for Manchester United for a world record fee for a teenager that summer. It was the beginning of a new era.
The Developing Years – 2004-06
Wayne Rooney scored a hat-trick on his Man United debut in the Champions League. He became the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Champions League at 18 years and 335 days. An incredible feat.
Gordon Strachan wrote at the time: “I have never seen a player in this country as good as Wayne Rooney at such a young age.
“I was at Bayern Munich’s game against Ajax and the people behind me were on their phones saying: ‘Rooney’s got a hat-trick.’ Roy Makaay scored three for Bayern but people were still talking about Rooney.”
“He has caught the imagination because he’s a goalscorer and a footballer. Makaay got a great hat-trick but he’s just a goalscorer. Players like Gary Lineker, Ian Rush and Denis Law were goalscorers. But Rooney plays as what the Europeans call a No10 and still scores loads of goals.”
Rooney, then, played with an all-round game and youthful exuberance that was exciting to watch, hence the ‘White Pele’ nickname. While Ronaldo continued to progress as a footballer, there’s no doubt who the shining light of team was in his first two seasons. The Englishman won PFA Young Player of the Year in both 2004-05 and 2005-06.
He was man of the match in the 2006 League Cup final, scoring twice and scored 16 goals in 2005-06 Premier League. But a second broken metatarsal in a late Premier League game against Chelsea made him a doubt for the World Cup.
Rooney and Ronaldo would meet again on opposing sides as Portugal faced England in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup. Rooney’s tournament to that point was clearly hampered by the injury sustained at Chelsea. He was red-carded in the match for stamping on Portugal’s Ricardo Carvalho.
Ronaldo protested to the referee about his actions, and when Rooney was sent off, Ronaldo was seen winking at the Portugal bench, suggesting that he got Rooney sent-off. The tabloids had a field day on Ronaldo, blaming him for England’s failure to progress. It looked somewhat likely that Ronaldo may not return to England and seek a move to Spain as he would suffer with the negative attention across England. The results could not have been more different.
Ronaldo Moves Up a Gear – 2006-09
Ronaldo revealed a lot about his personality with his performances for Manchester United in the 2006-07 season.
Booed and abused in every away game following the 2006 World Cup, Ronaldo won PFA Player of the Year honours, scoring 17 league goals, while being the team’s main creative outlet on the wing, dribbling past opponents for fun.
Eventually, the booing stopped and a respect grew for Ronaldo, who would finish second in the Ballon d’Or voting behind Kaka. Today, many of those same fans pick Ronaldo over Messi, respecting what he did in the Premier League.
Meanwhile, although generally a part of a free-flowing attack alongside Louis Saha, Ronaldo and Giggs, Rooney suffered a 10-game goalless streak during the season, en route to only 14 league goals.
The emphasis of the United team was beginning to change, although Rooney’s big game performances meant that he was still generally considered Ronaldo’s equal. Rooney had a brilliant game against Milan at home in the Champions League semi-final, scoring twice in a 3-2 win before the Red Devils were eliminated in the second leg.
An outstanding United team went from strength to strength the following season, culminating in a Premier League-Champions League double. Ronaldo was becoming more and more proficient than the Englishman in front of goal, more consistent and less culpable to Rooney’s scoring droughts.
Additionally, given Ronaldo’s more individualistic and ‘selfish’ style contrasted with Rooney’s all-action, all-rounder philosophy, Ferguson made the tough but fruitful decision of basing the team around Ronaldo rather than Rooney. It is difficult to argue with the results as, freed from defensive duty, Ronaldo scored 42 goals in 49 games for United.
Rooney was effective in a subordinate role but struggled to score in big games, often operating from the wing or given tactical instructions in European games. As Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or in 2008, the trend continued the following season as United made another Champions League final, this time losing to Barcelona. Ferguson admitted that Rooney’s positioning was a “sacrifice for the team”
Ferguson said he had only one other striker who was willing to make the same sacrifices. “Brian McClair was exactly the same,” he said. “I could say to him, ‘Fill in at right-back for 10 minutes’ and he would do it, no matter where he was asked to go on the field.”
Ronaldo and Real Madrid had been flirting with one another for the whole season, and when the summer came, he was off to the Bernabeu, for a world record £80m.
Rooney’s Opportunity – 2009/10
Cristiano Ronaldo was to be replaced by Wigan’s Antonio Valencia in an especially frugal summer for Manchester United, meaning that faith in the team was put on Wayne Rooney. Now 24 years old, heading for the peak of his powers, he had the opportunity to step out of Ronaldo’s shadow and become one of the world’s best players. He would no longer be asked to “fill in at right back” to cover for Ronaldo.
Although Rooney’s performances had been up-and-down from 2006-2009, he was still considered a key part of the team and fans pointed out that win percentages in games that he played far exceeded that of games where he was missing. And he showed that in 2009-10, with his best performances in a Manchester United shirt.
Take a look at his purple patch from January to March 2010:
Four goals vs Hull
Last minute winner vs Manchester City
Goal vs Arsenal in the Emirates
Two goals vs Milan at the San Siro
Goal vs Aston Villa in League Cup final win
Two goals vs Milan at Old Trafford
Two goals vs Fulham
As he headed to the Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich, there were even Ballon D’Or whispers. When asked about Rooney, Carlo Ancelotti said: “Is he the best in the world at the moment? I think yes. At the moment he’s the most decisive player in the world.”
Roberto Mancini said: “Rooney is the best in the world with Messi. He scores loads, works for the team and is intelligent all over the pitch.”
Others calling him the best player in the world, or at least alongside Ronaldo and Messi, included Alex Ferguson, Steven Gerrard, Gilberto Silva, and Martin O’Neill.
Unfortunately, this would turn out to be the apogee of Rooney’s career. He twisted his ankle in the match against the Bavarians, and a rush back from injury for the return leg and crunch match against Chelsea in the league did him no favours.
As he went to the World Cup carrying an injury once more, England failed miserably at the tournament with all hopes pinned on Rooney. He began to feel the heat of expectations, mocking fans for booing the teams performances. His hot streak had well and truly cooled.
He was arguably never quite as good from then on. And while he would win the PFA Player of the Year accolade for 2009-10, he did not feature among the Ballon d’Or voting at all.
This was not helped by threatening to leave United at the start of the next season, and thus not playing for two months, just before voting took place. But in truth, Rooney’s opportunity had gone and he would never really be considered a contender for best player in the world again.
Ronaldo did not seriously contend in 2010, finishing 6th in the voting, but it would turn out to be his worst placing over a 10-year period. Messi won the Ballon d’Or with 22% of the vote, over Iniesta with 17% and Xavi with 16%. It was not quite the Ronaldo and Messi award yet, but that time was approaching.
Argument’s Over – 2011-13
From 2010/2011 to 2012/13, Cristiano Ronaldo scored 168 goals for Real Madrid vs Rooney’s 66 goals for United. There could no longer be an argument for Rooney being a superior player to Ronaldo in any way, while they both played in attacking positions.
Ronaldo’s goalscoring was phenomenal and yet in that period, Messi collected each Ballon d’Or until Ronaldo won in 2013. The duo had separated themselves from the rest as all-time greats.
Rooney continued to contribute to United winning two league titles and reaching another Champions League final, but it was clear that Rooney and Ronaldo were different levels of player, a strange concept for those who had watched the two develop together at United eight or nine years earlier.
In Alex Ferguson’s final season, he signed Robin Van Persie for one last title push, and it signalled that Ferguson did not believe that Rooney alone could guarantee him the goals and play to win a title. Eventually, Rooney was phased out more in favour of the Dutchman, who scored 26 goals to Rooney’s 12 that season.
Ferguson wrote about Rooney in his book, who would have moved him on had he stayed at the club: “With that kind of physique, it was hard to imagine him playing into his 30s.
“He would receive no leniency from me. I would hammer him for any drop in condition,” wrote Ferguson, who was critical about his performances in that season.
He felt that Rooney was “struggling to get by people” and had “lost some of his old thirst”. As United captured their 20th title, Ferugson announced that after United’s 2-1 win against Swansea, that he had handed in his transfer request, a match in which Rooney also requested not to play.
Missed Opportunities – 2013-
Was it the beginning of the end for Rooney at United at just 28? Chelsea had made an official bid, and PSG were believed to have been interested, when Rooney made the transfer request.
The fact that he had asked to leave Man United twice over this three-year period suggested that he desperately needed a change of scenery. Yet Rooney is still playing at Old Trafford, despite the relationship having gone stale a long time ago.
While there was a brief renaissance under David Moyes, the performances in the following years suggested that there was a physical decline like Ferguson had predicted, but mentally, who knows how a different challenge could have made to Rooney?
It is hard to imagine Cristiano Ronaldo being as good as he is today without Lionel Messi. The Argentine has become his ultimate rival and has been largely accepted as the greatest player of his generation from a young age. With every match, and every record he breaks, Ronaldo is completely motivated to challenge that notion, and he has had some success in doing that.
Rooney’s lack of thirst, as Ferguson described, was enabled by both David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal following Ferguson’s departure. Moyes, looking for some good PR following a terrible start to his United reign, signed Rooney to a five-year contract worth in excess of £300,000 a week. Following the contract, his performances began to diminish gradually.
When Van Gaal arrived, he announced Wayne Rooney as captain of the club, declaring “the captain must always play”, meaning that Rooney, having won everything over 10 years at United, would not only earn such an extortionate wage, but continue to play in the team regardless of performances.
It was hardly surprising then that Rooney’s league goal tallies, although partly attributed to playing in deeper positions, dropped from 17 in 2013-14 to 12 in 2014-14, to 8 in 2015-16, to a measly 5 in 2016-17.
He had similar assurances of his place in the team from Roy Hodgson for England to their detriment in Euro 2016. With Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Dele Alli all in form, Rooney still found his place in the team.
For a while, it seemed like he was untouchable despite increasingly laboured performances. Then, at the start of this season, he just stopped playing regularly. Jose Mourinho gave him a chance at the start of the season, but with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba signed, saw no position to fit Rooney. He has barely started a game of importance this season.
This is a popular development. While still a regular first-team player, amazingly 99% of Man United fans on Red Issue wanted him dropped from the team.
Not long afterwards, he was dropped from the England squad for simply not being good enough anymore.
Rooney is well and truly in the United second team now, fighting for any resemblance of form while young star Marcus Rashford rests up for the ‘big’ games.
All the while, Cristiano Ronaldo scores a hat-trick against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid in Champions League, scoring twice against Sevilla and Celta Vigo, possibly leading Real Madrid to a League-Champions League double.
The Final Chapter
Cristiano Ronaldo is 32 going on 28, Wayne Rooney is 31 going on 35. With talk of a move to China for Rooney, this is not the way it was supposed to end.
Nobody doubts where Ronaldo is on the all-time great pantheon, and the only question is how he high up the list he can go. Despite being all-time Man United and England top scorer, Rooney’s positioning on the pantheon remains unclear.
Barney Ronay called the end of Rooney’s career well in an excellent article in The Guardian in 2014. He named Rooney’s predicament, “The Wazza Paradox”.
“Here is a footballer who has been elevated to the pinnacle of what he could reasonably hope to achieve – captain of club and country – at precisely the stage in his career when he is no longer able to fulfil with genuine distinction either function.”
There are reasons for the difference in the body of work so far between the two. Maybe Rooney was a little overhyped at the start by the English media (wouldn’t be the first time), injuries and fitness have not helped and maybe Rooney could have taken a different road if he had left United and solved his motivation issues. Maybe Rooney has actually done all he could and the standards of Ronaldo have long surpassed that of mere mortals.
Yet, the fact is that the performance gap between the two should not be as pronounced as it has been this season. With Rooney’s United future uncertain, his final chapter is more important than Ronaldo’s. Having even won an international trophy with Portugal, everything from here is a cherry on top for Ronaldo’s distinguished career. Rooney may have achieved so much already, but as Ronaldo has proven, 31 years old is no age to be considering semi-retirement.
As Ronay wrote, one of the more disappointing aspects of recent Rooney is that he lacks a “deeper texture to his game that might sustain him in diminished maturity.” This is key for Rooney’s future. Reaching Ronaldo level is now beyond his reach, but a Giggs-like reinvention in his 30s could give him a very different legacy when people look back on his career in 30 years’ time.