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It has been a surreal couple of weeks in English soccer, with the scurrilous minutiae of John Terry's wanton wanderings handing the gossip mongers a constant stream of chat-room fodder.
As each fresh detail of Terry's extramarital affair with England teammate Wayne Bridge's former girlfriend explodes into the headlines and is hungrily lapped by the salivating masses, concern is growing about how the sorry saga will affect the national team. Nothing about this bizarre tale surprises anymore – not Terry's sacking as skipper by head coach Fabio Capello, nor last weekend's fresh revelations about hefty payoffs to ensure the silence of Terry's mistress.
Yet perhaps the unlikeliest aspect that remains in this whole affair is the source to which England is looking for stability in these awkward times. Out of the embers of Capello's blueprint for a smooth buildup to this summer's World Cup has been the emergence of Wayne Rooney as a beacon of strength and confidence.
No longer the troubled teen who could not be counted on to keep his head when it mattered, Rooney has matured to such an extent that he was even considered for the captaincy that was stripped away from Terry before Capello eventually opted for Rio Ferdinand. The fact Rooney was not handed the armband may have more to do with Capello not wanting his most dynamic player to be distracted than any other factor in Ferdinand's favor.
With each performance for Manchester United, Rooney quietly moves a step closer toward establishing himself as one of world soccer's elite, and there are many observers willing to make an argument for the 24-year-old as Europe's best player so far this season.
Four years ago, Rooney had the tools and the game to be a star at the World Cup in Germany, yet his temperament proved costly at a critical moment. His stupid sending off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho in the quarterfinal against Portugal brought his tournament to a premature and unwanted end.
These days, there is a calmer presence about Rooney but there is no loss of the fire that makes him such an offensive threat for both England and United. He has managed to pick a careful path through the celebrity jungle, too, avoiding some of the more obvious pitfalls that Terry and others have neither possessed the foresight nor wherewithal to avert.
Controlled aggression is the key to Rooney's ability to take his game to the next level, with fierce running and exquisite timing making him a nightmare to defend.
The consensus of opinion in Europe is that the English Premier League has taken itself to new heights this season, overtaking Spain's La Liga for overall strength and entertainment. If that is indeed true, then a great part of it can be attributed to the form of Rooney, Chelsea's Didier Drogba, Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas and Carlos Tevez of Manchester City, all of whom have pushed the envelope this campaign.
While England prays that the Terry situation will fix itself without overshadowing World Cup preparations, those thoughts might be better employed willing fresh legs and fine health to Rooney. For it is he, more than any other England player, who has what it takes to shine in South Africa. And it is he, at last, who has shoulders broad enough to carry the burden of his precocious talent.
Weekend Best XI
1. Get him an Advil
David Beckham's World Cup hopes were thrown into jeopardy when he was dropped to the bench by AC Milan boss Leonardo in the side's 0-0 draw with Livorno. Beckham is guaranteed a place in the England squad if he is playing regularly in Serie A, but on-loan Brazilian winger Mancini is a serious threat to his starting spot in Milan.
2. Get him a beer
Jozy Altidore suffered a slow start to life in the Premiership but finally scored his first goal for Hull City in a 2-1 victory over Manchester City. Whether Altidore is truly ready to excel in the EPL remains to be seen, but United States coach Bob Bradley will have been pleased by this performance.
3. Get him some earplugs
Swedish referee Martin Hansson should brace himself for a hostile reception at the World Cup. Hansson was in charge when Thierry Henry's handball gave France a spot in the tournament at the Republic of Ireland's expense and fans at the tournament won't let him forget it.
4. Keep an eye on …
Portsmouth. The stricken EPL club is in real danger of being forced to cease operations as its desperate financial plight rages on. With crippling debts and a tattered reputation, this is undoubtedly the lowest point in club history. And it could get worse still.
5. Catch a flight to …
Munich. It's not October but it's still a great time to head to this great German city, especially with Bayern Munich trying to step up its Bundesliga challenge. Bayern faces the latest test of its title credentials at home to old rival Borussia Dortmund on Saturday.
6. Useless and completely made-up statistic of the week
4 – The number of months until Jose Mourinho leaves Inter Milan to return to England. Mourinho has a release clause in his contract and is understood to be prepared to pay whatever fee necessary to trigger his escape.
7. Fond farewell
Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini was pleased to say goodbye to Robinho, sending the Brazilian superstar off on loan to Santos. However, Robinho's countrymen have been just as happy to see him return home, and he has quickly found form by helping Santos to a derby victory over Sao Paolo by notching the winning goal.
8. Get ready to say hello to …
Paolo Maldini. Reports in Italy are strongly suggesting that the AC Milan legend is considering spending a year in the USA with the New York Red Bulls.
9. Get ready to say goodbye to …
The David Beckham Academy. The Los Angeles base of Beckham's worldwide kids soccer academy has closed down, having seen attendances and interest decline drastically over the past year.
10. Get excited about …
The Euro 2012 qualifying draw produced some intriguing combinations, with Germany and Turkey, Italy and Serbia, and Spain and the Czech Republic among the big teams paired together. The final tournament itself, in Poland and the Ukraine, promises to be a logistical disaster but at least the qualifying should be good.
11. Why it's good to be a soccer player
Take a look at Luli Fernandez, girlfriend of Real Madrid and Argentina star Fernando Gago.
- Wayne Rooney
- Fabio Capello
- Manchester City
- David Beckham