Will Wayne Rooney’s Temper Be His Undoing? Again?

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They were the words every England fan dreaded to hear. Wayne Rooney’s colorful choice of language — the key word rhymes with an object in hockey — to the referee in his country’s final warm-up game before their campaign begins against the U.S. this Saturday was a potential precursor for why England’s continuing drought in international competitions is set fair to continue.

Look away now if you’re English but local official Jeff Selogilwe responded to Rooney’s rude tirade after the game by confirming that any repetition when the real thing starts could easily result in England’s star man seeing red, heading for an early bath and missing subsequent matches if England can make it through without him. “He is a good player when you see him on the television,” said Selogilwe, “but when you see him on the pitch he just keeps on insulting the referee. To me, it looks like Rooney insults people and fouls other players. If he insults a referee like me, then he will use that vulgar language to other referees as well. He must learn to control his temper. He could get sent off in the World Cup, especially if he uses this kind of language.”

Rooney was incensed that a series of niggly fouls by the opposition — local South African side Platinum Stars — had gone unpunished. But while he attempted to make amends at the final whistle of England’s 3-0 victory (in which Rooney scored the last goal) by apologizing to the ref and giving him his shirt, many England fans will be concerned that history will repeat itself. His last appearance in a World Cup game was against Portugal in the quarter-finals four years ago, where he was sent off for kicking out at Ricardo Carvalho. His temper is a feature of his game (indeed, most fans, fellow players and experts acknowledge that he wouldn’t have quite the same edge without it) but it seems all too easy for opponents to rile him, knowing what the outcome will be. He’s also shown “previous” in friendlies before, being substituted for his own good against Spain in 2004. Indeed, former American defender and 1994 World Cup captain Alexi Lalas said (days before Monday’s latest flare up) that, “I hope he has a temper tantrum, has a swing at someone and gets thrown out. I would love to see him act like a baby.”

Putting the case for the defense, it’s worth noting that Rooney’s disciplinary record has improved. He was yellow carded only eight times last season, and hasn’t seen red since Manchester United’s Premier League game at Fulham in March 2009. What’s more, he sailed through England’s entire qualification campaign for South Africa without being cautioned, concentrating instead on scoring goals for fun, using his head in more ways than one, if you will.

The problems seem to arise when players target him after Rooney returns from injury as he feels he’s being picked on and not getting enough protection from the officials. His team mates, unsurprisingly, are unwavering in their support. “I think Wayne’s temper is a good thing,” said strike partner Jermain Defoe. “When you’ve got that fire in your belly as a player, if you take that away from him then he won’t be the same player.” And Rio Ferdinand (missing the World Cup through injury of his own), who plays alongside Rooney for Manchester United, as well as England, isn’t worried either. “It was a practice match not an official match. I don’t see Wazza [Rooney] having a disciplinary problem at the World Cup at all. Since the incident in Germany, he’s done so well to get to where he is now.”

But England fans may not have quite the same belief in their star players. During the 1990 semi-final vs. West Germany, breakout midfield star Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne picked up a booking meaning that he would have missed the final through suspension had England made it (they lost on penalties) and David Beckham infamously got sent off for lashing out at Argentina’s Diego Simeone during the 1998 second round clash (you know what’s coming: England lost on penalties again). And Rooney’s crucial 2006 dismissal (yup: England ended up losing to Portugal on penalties) and Monday’s tongue lashing will loom large in the minds of the English, Americans and — no doubt — referees he comes up against in South Africa. And he may well need to offer more than the shirt off his back to avoid seeing his and England’s World Cup dreams turn into a nightmare.