Watching Wayne Rooney’s performance against Real Madrid this week, one word sprang to mind – selfless.
It is a word that describes many of his performances in the Champions League, certainly in recent years, as he regularly sacrifices his attacking intent for the good of the team. But it is also a trait that may prevent him from ever breaking into that elite group that some argue contains only two.
One school of thought is that ‘world-class’ equals ‘showman’. While the other claims it is more akin to ‘catalyst’. The very best – in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – are both.
And yet, in Europe at least, Rooney is neither of those. He works tirelessly, carrying out his manager’s orders with a tenacious energy and unquestionable will to win. But on nights like Wednesday, few would call him world-class.
Is it the case that Ronaldo and Messi are at the peak of their sport because they are allowed to be, because they are rarely given other jobs to do? Similarly with the likes of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, who make the game adapt to them rather than the other way round?
Rooney is an outstanding footballer. Of that there is no question. And he has evolved perhaps more than anyone else currently in the Premier League, from a fearless teenage striker to a deep-lying forward who sprays passes, creates for others and still finds time to score plenty himself.
But he is too good at too many things to ever be allowed to do just one.
This is a man who as a boy tore league and international defences apart, who scored a hat-trick on his debut for Manchester United and didn’t look surprised. And so the footballing world may always wonder what would have happened if he had remained that player – if that were even possible.
In a game that evolves, players who do the same should be championed, and 155 goals in 336 appearances are proof enough that Rooney was and remains an outstanding talent. You just wonder, although United would be weaker without everything he brings to every area of the pitch, what would have happened if he had focused on just one. Perhaps then we would be talking of three not two.
For United fans, he will go down as a legend. While for English football, he will be remembered as possibly the best of his generation. And of course at only 27, there is plenty yet to come.
But he has evolved in such a way as to prevent the possibility of joining those termed world-class, not when it is defined as one man standing out from ten more.
Instead he does what is asked of him. And with every win he contributes to, he will be happy, even if the world doesn’t always notice.