Rooney 2004: World at His Feet review – football at its most magical

Fittingly, Rooney 2004: World at His Feet is only half an hour long, when you expect any documentary these days to drag on for 60 minutes at least. It sweeps you up, flashes a moment of fantastical sporting immortality at you, then dumps you back down to earth, leaving you tearful and rueful but still tingling. It’s over before it’s begun. It’s how it felt to be an England supporter watching Wayne Rooney play at the European Championships 20 years ago.

World at His Feet captures perhaps the most magical thing football can give its fans, almost all of whom are people who played the game as kids until they grew up and realised they were not, in fact, the best in the world. Watching your team win a match is good and watching them win a trophy is better, but nothing is quite like watching a player who is basically still a child, who hasn’t yet been jaded by fame, money, injury and self-doubt, who thinks they’re the best in the world … and they actually are.

Rooney was 18 when he arrived in Portugal for Euro 2004. The rest of the England squad bore the weight of being dubbed the “golden generation”, containing as they did a clutch of players – Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Beckham, John Terry, Michael Owen – who were elite-level for their clubs and were expected to improve on the national team’s run of failures in major tournaments. As they checked in to the England training base, they sensed the pressure that was on them. Rooney did not: “It felt like a holiday camp with your friends,” he says. “I was in a nice hotel, chefs cooking your food. Massive games room.”

The first match was against defending European champions and recent World Cup winners, France. They had Zinedine Zidane, they had Thierry Henry. They also had defender Lilian Thuram, who had rashly proclaimed to the media that Rooney was perhaps not ready for international football. When he got the chance, Rooney sneakily forearmed Thuram in the face, but the real violence was the way he played, entirely without fear: muscling superstars 10 years older than him off the ball, or kicking it one side of them and running round the other. The game’s most respected exponents were no match for a scouse teenager’s playground tactics. “These world-class players, I felt I was better than all of them. I nutmegged Zidane!”

England were 1-0 up and cruising when Rooney was subbed off. Without him they imploded in injury time and lost, but it didn’t matter: it was on. Football was, as barely anybody sang back then despite the song being eight years old, coming home. Rooney was going to win us the tournament. Switzerland were next, dispatched by two Rooney goals: an easy header, and a hard near-post shot the Swiss goalkeeper was simply too psyched out to save.

The programme wisely limits its contributors, just adding journalists Gabby Logan and Paul Hayward to Rooney’s strike partner, Michael Owen. The main interviewee is, of course, Rooney himself, the calm, wry man rather than the grinning, snarling boy. The sinewy teen frame has long since been replaced by a bull wedged into a barrel full of hair, a physique Rooney accentuates with his typically unpretentious choice of outfit, a shacket on top of a gilet on top of a crewneck. It’s remarkable and admirable that after such a blazing start, Rooney didn’t burn out, instead going on to have a solidly excellent football career. But Euro 2004 was clearly the highlight, and when he talks about it he lights up again.

The last group game was one of the national team’s best ever wins. Croatia, tricky and sturdy, took the lead, but England’s Rooney-powered confidence was unbreakable. World at His Feet gives the action the full treatment, dropping the sound as the boy wonder lines up a shot from outside the box, before letting the roars and cheers rush back in when the ball zooms into the net. It then lingers on the abiding image of the tournament from an England perspective: Rooney striding past the Croatia defence, receiving the ball from Owen, then looking to the keeper’s left before clipping the ball to his right. The performance was so inspirational, BBC co-commentator Joe Royle accidentally started rapping: “The headlines tomorrow will be full of ahs and ohs. Rooneymania grows and grows.”

In the quarter-final, England were leading 1-0 when a Portuguese defender trod on Rooney’s foot and broke it. He went to hospital, England went out on penalties. Rooney looks quietly bereft as he remembers it all ending; perhaps he knew then and there that this would be as good as it would ever get. But oh, how good it was: “I was just a young kid from England, having the time of my life.”

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Rooney 2004: World at His Feet aired on BBC One and is available on iPlayer

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