KRAKOW, Poland — If England needs a scapegoat for the national football team’s latest tournament exit, it seems that Wayne Rooney is the best option.
Sure, the Manchester United striker scored the only goal in England’s 1-0 win over co-host Ukraine. Sure, that goal assured the team of first place in Group D, meaning England would avoid defending champion Spain in the quarterfinals. And sure, and maybe most interestingly, Rooney scored his penalty in the quarterfinal shootout loss, briefly giving his team a 2-1 lead over Italy following a 0-0 draw after 120 minutes.
Despite that, at least some were still not impressed — not with his overall effort nor with his pre-tournament vacation to Las Vegas.
"Where were Roo?" read the back page headline in the Daily Star on Tuesday.
The knocks on Rooney — some valid, some a bit of a stretch — stem from last year. That was when the team’s biggest star kicked an opponent in a Euro 2012 qualifier, incurring a two-match ban that kept him out of the opening draw against France and the comeback victory over Sweden.
Because of the break between the end of the Premier League season on May 13 and the match against Ukraine on June 19, Rooney was probably lacking match fitness.
England coach Roy Hodgson, however, doesn’t think so.
"In the first game he didn’t show any particular signs of lacking any fitness and he played the 120 minutes (against Italy)," Hodgson said before then speaking directly to the British press. "I think what you might be saying is that you’re a bit disappointed with his performance and maybe thought he could have played better."
Rooney scored 35 goals for Manchester United last season. And still only 26, he broke his eight-year goal-less drought at major tournaments in his first game in Ukraine, against Ukraine.
That’s not enough to win a major title — something England hasn’t done since the 1966 World Cup, when Rooney was still 19 years away from even being born. And it certainly wasn’t enough to satisfy a country that expects to win every tournament it enters despite that record.
"In all top international teams, you’re looking at one, two, possibly three individuals that everyone recognizes as being exceptional world-class talents," Hodgson said. "And when you get to the big stage, you’re hoping those players perform and show they’re world-class talents — the Maradonas that win Argentina a World Cup with his performance."
Instead of plaudits, Rooney now appears to be gaining a reputation as the star who fails to use his strength and pace to deliver when it really matters for England.
The criticism of his vacation to Las Vegas, where he was pictured clutching what appeared to be a bottle of beer in a casino, and the jokes about his transplant-bolstered hair will likely only make things harder on Rooney when the next World Cup comes around in two years.
"Of course I think we put a lot of expectations on him," Hodgson said. "When he missed the first two games we were all believing that what we need to do now get to the third game and Wayne Rooney will win us the championships. That maybe was too much to ask of him.
"He certainly tried very hard, but he didn’t have his best game. I think he would admit that. That might be down to a number of factors."