Wayne Rooney and the aesthetics of sacrifice

Has anyone ever appeared so selfless while caring so little about everyone around him?

Image by Ben Sutherland

Wayne Rooney, who recently announced that he’d retire from international duty after the 2018 World Cup, played his most recent England match on the same weekend Mother Teresa was canonized. This was a sequence that perfectly distilled the Rooney experience, a celebration of sacrifice as an aesthetic pursuit.

Rooney, as you may have heard, is no saint. His miracles, increasingly rare though they may be, are verifiable. But his sacrifices are entirely aesthetic; they have no material effect beyond signaling his goodness.

That, in short, is how Rooney found himself dropping between the center-backs during his nation’s opening World Cup qualifying match against Slovakia. Nominally a number 10, he was suddenly the team’s libero. Running all the way back down the field to defend is, in a sense, what dedication to a team looks like. In a world full of forwards who can’t be bothered to track back, Rooney has always stood out in that regard. Such an analysis of the Wayne Rooney experience, however, disregards the impact of a player who jogs around in a frantic search to be helpful on his team.

“Today Wayne played wherever he wanted to,” England manager Sam Allardyce said after the match. “I can’t stop Wayne playing there.” Can he not? If the team’s manager cannot actually ask his captain to do a job, how selfless is that captain? Wayne Rooney will do anything for his team, so long as it can be seen. This drive has allowed him to remain essential — central, even — as his goalscoring touch has dried up.

The belief that helpfulness can be equated with visibility, however, is misplaced. Think about poor Harry Kane, isolated at the peak of England’s attack while the man who was supposed to play behind him decided to experiment with being a libero. Rooney’s biggest skill may well be that he is never blamed for leaving his teammates high and dry. How could someone who is trying so hard to be helpful do that?

Yet that is what Wayne Rooney does. In that way, he is reminiscent Arthur Shappey on John Finnemore’s radio series Cabin Pressure, an overgrown child who has to be periodically reminded “I can’t stop being too helpful by being more helpful.” At least Arthur can be reminded. Rooney, however, seems to be growing more obstinate with age. He is now like an obsequious waiter who feels compelled to ask you if everything is pleasing after every bit and while your mouth is full. It’s hard to label such behavior malicious because at a superficial level it is an expression of caring for others, but the level of obliviousness involved eventually makes it clear that there is no caring underlying these actions; it is selflessness as a rote performance.

Rooney’s declaration that he’d retire after the 2018 World Cup also falls into that category. Taken at face value, it appears that he is sparing Allardyce (or whoever replaces him) the suffering of having to push him out the door. But by declaring when he’d retire, Rooney has also pre-empted any earlier attempt to call time on his career. Even in announcing his eventual retirement, Rooney selfishly bathed himself in the appearance of selflessness. Wayne Rooney would like to be a footballing saint, to suffer for your sins, but he doesn’t care about you or anyone else; Wayne Rooney’s sacrifice is purely superficial.