The moment Wayne Rooney swivelled past Zinedine Zidane at Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz in the opening match at Euro 2004, it was clear he wasn’t an archetypal young player.
There was something different about Rooney back then, both in comparison to others with world-class potential. The 18-year-old was a snarling, raw, unrefined street footballer and that was what made the difference; he had a fearlessness about him that led him to score four goals in as many games at that tournament.
Only a metatarsal injury in the quarter-final against Portugal stopped him in his tracks because the rest of Europe certainly didn’t seem capable. As he became older, he was consumed by a mixture of coaching and the sort of natural hesitance that comes with age; he was an all rounder who would play anywhere and try anything, but nailing him to a position – an out-and-out number nine or a cultured number ten – restricted him and took the edge from his game.
Statistically, he was world class, there’s absolutely no doubting that. He ended his career as both all-time top goalscorer for England and for Manchester United, the club who won the scramble for his signature after the tournament ended, despite his position never truly being nailed down.
Rooney became a talisman for both teams, too. On the face of it, he managed to fulfil his potential and become the player he was expected to be, but it always felt as though something was missing. He was incomparable to anything England had ever previously produced – a maverick, workhorse, finisher and creator all rolled into one – and yet he didn’t stand out in the way he perhaps should have.
Rooney is the best example of a young player getting an early chance on the international stage and blossoming. He’d only made his debut around 16 months earlier in a friendly with Australia, but his form for Everton meant an instant impact was obvious by the time the summer tournament rolled around in 2004.
Two years later, Sven-Goran Eriksson hoped for a repeat when he selected 16-year-old Theo Walcott for his 2006 World Cup squad, but there was far more resistance meeting that decision. Walcott had only moved from Southampton to Arsenal the previous January and was yet to receive a cap. Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe had both enjoyed impressive seasons in the Premier League, and were unhappy being left out in favour of someone who hadn’t played a single minute. The press attention Walcott received suggested Eriksson’s decision wasn’t driven by football. And the teenager didn’t figure at all during the tournament.
Placing such faith in young players is not uncommon. Brazil were famously led to the 1958 World Cup by a 17-year-old Pele and the great Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff’s full Azzurri debut came in the quarter-finals of the 1968 European Championships.
Kylian Mbappe scored in the 2018 World Cup final for France at the age of just 19. Far too often we’re told to accept international football as a right of passage; a way to mark progress in a career. Those who are good enough get to experience it early; sometimes it can make or break a career, but there’s no right time for a player to represent their country and there are few better things to witness than a carefree teenager scaring the life out of their older counterparts.
Both Rooney and Walcott came into England sides with lots of experienced heads and a culture that was difficult to navigate. Eriksson was known for picking the same players regardless of their form, and in a formation that didn’t necessarily suit the personnel. One thrived because their physique and quality truly transcended their years, but this summer’s European Championships will see an entirely different story; Gareth Southgate has picked a squad with no players over the age of 30 and a system to suit those he has chosen.
Football moves quickly and many are expecting a Rooney-style impact from Manchester City’s Phil Foden this summer, despite him only having six caps before the tournament opener against Croatia. He’s been on the periphery of Pep Guardiola’s City side for some time, but finally broke through around the same time he was given his England debut.
Just a matter of months later and the hopes of a nation could be pinned on his shoulders. After being sent home in disgrace from a camp in Iceland last year following a breach of Covid-19 rules, Foden was thrust into the limelight, and tellingly, there aren’t many people suggesting it’s come too early for him.
Jude Bellingham’s rise, as a 17-year-old who traded Championship struggles with Birmingham City for thriving in the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund, has also turned heads to a point there was a clamour for him to start against Croatia. All that when his eventual substitute appearance saw him become the youngest-ever player to appear in a Euros.
Pre-tournament pressure on hyped-up young players has almost become an English cliché. But the truth is, it doesn’t really exist. It is the freedom and unpredictability that provides the platform for an impressive performance on the biggest stage, rather than expectation. The feeling of having nothing to lose trumps the fear of failing to take a chance because even in the case of the legendary figures who have gone before, another chance will always come along fairly quickly.
Being flung into a tournament environment is nothing new, but it isn’t quite as common for a young generation to be given a chance together. There is a real chance to make a name for themselves this summer, just as Rooney, Pele, Zoff and Mbappe did.
The stage is set and the continent is waiting.