Offside, 4 May
Another World Cup, another fractured metatarsal.
England’s World Cup dreams in Roo-ins. Sven’s hopes on the Wayne. A nation wallows in Rooneymournia. These were the headlines I expected to see on Sunday morning. But for once even our tabloid caption writers failed to deliver their trademark puns. The British have always responded to its customary sporting disasters with self-deprecating humour but the disappointingly low tabloid pun rate seemed to signify that Rooney’s injury was no laughing matter.
Four years ago the word ‘metatarsal’ entered the popular lexicon after David Beckham broke his toe on the eve of the World Cup. Rooney’s injury has once again provoked another national outbreak of foot fetishism. Once again the newspapers are full of metatarsal diagrams and fevered prognostic debates. It brings to mind Marx’s famously dictum that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Only this time round the tragedy seems to have followed the farce.
In 2002 the Sun urged its readers to lay their hands on a picture of David Beckham’s foot and pray, while even the Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that ‘nothing was more important to England’s arrangements for the World Cup than the state of David Beckham’s foot’. Today, however, Beckham is widely regarded as a false idol whereas Rooney is worshipped as the true Messiah. Even the legendary Diego Maradona is an admirer of the boy wonder. ‘I’ve seen Rooney and I like him,’ said Maradona in a TV interview with Gary Lineker. ‘He’s got character, he’s got strength and he sticks out his backside’. Maradona’s right. There’s no Englishman alive who can stick out his arse quite like Rooney, which is why his loss is such a tragedy.
Beckham’s foot injury was, at the time, seen as a freakish accident. However, since then, English players have been bedevilled by a spate of broken metatarsals. Rooney’s broken toe effectively ended England’s Euro 2004 campaign while Michael Owen, Ledley King and Ashley Cole are all currently recovering from metatarsal fractures. The broken metatarsal is no longer just a medical problem. It has become an iconic injury, a symbol of dashed English sporting dreams.
As the inquest into the curse of the metatarsal rages, modern lightweight football boots appear to be the chief culprits. It seems that not only were footballers harder in the old days, but so too were their boots. Former Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty blames modern footwear. ‘My wife’s a physio, and she thinks it’s the boots that players wear today,’ said Docherty. ‘When I played in the 1950s, you used to get a pair of boots and take six weeks to break them in; you put them in a bucket of water’.
Rooney was wearing Nike’s new Total 90 Supremacy boots for the first time when he sustained his broken toe. The boot weighs only 10.5 ounces but Nike have refuted suggestions that the new boot design was to blame. ‘Nothing occurred in any of our tests to indicate the player would be at any risk,’ said the boot’s developer Cedric Collet. ‘I think these injuries are more linked to the speed the game is played at now’.
But whether it was the poncey modern boots wot done it or the frenetic pace of the Premiership, the debate about the causes of the metatarsal epidemic is largely academic. Roon is crocked and England’s hopes of assuaging forty years of hurt by winning the World Cup have been severely dented. The funereal mood which has descended upon the nation since Rooney was stretchered off on Saturday was perfectly summed up by Steven Gerrard. ‘It would be a disaster for England if we had to go to the World Cup without him’, said the Liverpool midfielder. ‘He’s our key man, and I think it’s impossible to have a successful World Cup without him’.
The current England squad is frequently described as the ‘golden generation’, the best crop of footballers since 1966. But Gerrard’s comments reveal an alarmingly fragile sense of self-belief. If world-class players like Gerrard don’t really believe that a squad packed with top class internationals is good enough to succeed without Rooney, then we really are buggered. Sure, it’s very difficult to cope with the loss of star players, but no team ever won anything without self-belief. The main reason that England lost to Brazil in Shizuoka in 2002 was that the players didn’t believe they could win. They were in awe of Brazil – or at least in awe of the myth of Brazilian football. Now it seems we are in awe of the magical powers of Wayne Rooney and can’t imagine life without the 20-year old striker. Sven isn’t exactly known for his inspirational ‘fight them on the beaches’ team talks but unless he can convince his players that they can win without Rooney then there’s no point getting on the plane to Germany.
Rooney himself has spoken of the need to ‘get on with it’ and ‘be positive’ so perhaps we should look on the bright side of our metatarsal nightmare. Our World Cup hopes might be disappearing down the proverbial toilet but we can at least console ourselves with the knowledge that we are undisputed champions of foot injuries. The Brazilians might be the bookies’ favourites to lift the World Cup but they can’t hold a candle to England when it comes to broken metatarsals. Quite simply we have the breakiest feet in the world. And if that’s not a reason to be proud, I don’t know what is.
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