ON THE INSIDE OF WAYNE ROONEY'S RIGHT FOREARM IS AN ORNATE TATTOO READING, "JUST ENOUGH EDUCATION TO PERFORM," WHICH IS THE NAME OF AN ALBUM BY HIS FAVORITE BAND, STEREOPHONICS. IT'S ALSO A FITTING SUMMATION of Rooney's own schooling. He was so accomplished as a soccer player that at 16, he cut back on classes at the De La Salle school in Liverpool so he could train with Everton. Ten minutes into one of his first Premier League games, in October 2002, he scored a goal of such class—an untouchable scorcher into the top right corner that gave the Toffees a 2-1 win and snapped Arsenal's 30-game unbeaten streak—that it was obvious he wouldn't be finishing his secondary education. "I was at school," he said later, "and the next minute I was in the first team." He was five days short of his 17th birthday.
"For someone of that age, he's the biggest talent I've seen since I've been in England," said Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, a man not known for effusive praise of opponents. Rooney's blue-collar grit was just as glaring a trait. Even at 16, with his short hair, stocky build and preternatural you-lookin'-at-me? scowl, he looked like a journeyman boxer. (Or a bulldog. Hold up a picture of Rooney Rorschach-style, and the answer you'll most likely get is "Pug," which works on multiple levels.) He had a mouth that would make a longshoreman blush.
Predictably, he committed a few youthful indiscretions, most notably when he confessed to patronizing prostitutes at a Liverpool massage parlor, including, reportedly, a 50-year-old grandmother. (Which explains why opposing fans have been heard to chant, "He's fat/He's red/He'll take your gran to bed/Wayne Rooney!") But a few minor injuries aside, nothing has slowed his progression from prodigy to megastar. With Manchester United, Rooney has won three Premier League titles and one Champions League medal, and at 24 he's already England's 12th-leading scorer of all time, with 25 goals in 58 caps. At the time of his goal against Arsenal, he was making about $125 a week and living with his parents in public housing. Seven years later, he makes substantially more: There are rumors that United will offer him $230,000 a week to fend off interest from Real Madrid.
But there's still nothing posh about Rooney. Oh, he's mellowed a bit; marriage and fatherhood will do that to a man. (He wed Coleen McLoughlin in 2008—Stereophonics played at the festivities—and they had a son, Kai Wayne, in November.) But he's still swearing, still sporting the same number-two clipper cut (not that he has much choice), still looking very much like an extra in a Guy Ritchie movie.
It's that grit that lifted Man U last season, which was one of flux for the Red Devils. Before it began, Cristiano Ronaldo took his fancy moves to Madrid and Carlos Tévez went across town to Man City, leaving a 40-goal hole in the United scoring sheet. But their departures also changed the way Rooney, who was often deployed out of position on the left wing, was used. He became the focus of the attack, one that relied more on crosses from the wings than a flashy ground buildup. Rooney adapted, staying after practice to work on his headers. Never much of a threat in the air (he's 5' 10"), he had seven straight goals with his head.
His numbers were staggering: 34 goals in 34 games for United before he sprained his ankle on March 30. Just as significantly, he showed he could carry a team on his shoulders, which is what England hopes for in South Africa—and what the rest of the world rightly fears. "If he continues scoring and playing like that," said Bayern Munich president Franz Beckenbauer, "he can win the World Cup for England."