Exclusive Messi interview: Why we fear England and Rooney
Sporting genius is like spotting a freemason - it takes one to know one.
So for all the superlatives, and personal accolades, which have decorated Wayne Rooney’s 34 goals this season, a ringing endorsement from Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest player, is surely the ultimate seal of approval.
It will take something special at the World Cup to upstage Messi’s four-goal demolition of Arsenal for Barcelona in the Champions League as football’s outstanding individual display of 2010.
But it says much for Rooney’s extravagant gifts that Messi regards the Manchester United’s talisman as a kindred spirit, the man who makes his team tick, and that he hopes they will share the same stage in South Africa.
Still only 22, Messi - the proud son of a factory worker and a part-time cleaner - will be at the mercy of Argentina’s fitful performances under wayward ringmaster Diego Maradona when the big top opens at the greatest football circus on earth.
And as he surveyed the the cast of possible contenders, he recognised that Rooney’s value to the Three Lions mirrors his own worth to Argentina: without him, they are simply not the same draw.
In an exclusive interview, Lionel Flair said: “England are always a tough team to play against because they have a lot of spirit and they fight to the end.
“I know Capello is a great coach and has changed things a lot for England - they are a much better team now he is in charge, and I know they will do well.
“But on the pitch, Rooney is the key. I like him - he is a great player, very strong, with a lot of energy. He works hard for the team, holds the ball up well and he is a formidable striker.
“If he steers clear of injury, England will have a good chance of doing well. It would be great to play up against Rooney, although I don’t think I would see too much of him because we play mostly at opposite ends of the pitch.
“For me, England have a good balance. They look very dangerous when Crouch plays with Rooney up front. I like Gerrard and Lampard, too, but Rooney will be the key. It would be good to play against him in South Africa - preferably in the final, if that is possible.”
In the same way that Pele never shared the World Cup stage with Maradona, and we never saw Paul Gascoigne measure up against Michel Platini or Johan Cruyff, it may be asking too much for the cards to fall so that Messi and Rooney go head-to-head.
In the past, England v Argentina has often proved one of the tournament’s most incendiary fixtures. In 1966, Sir Alf Ramsey prevented his players from swapping shirts and branded the Argies “animals”, 20 years later there was Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ and, in 1998, England players were appalled by the gloating from their penalty shoot-out conquerors in St Etienne.
Marvelling at two magicians’ tricks, rather than reheating old squabbles over ownership of distant islands in the south Atlantic, would at least restore the contest to sport in its purest form.
Messi added: “I know there is a lot of history between England and Argentina, but I also know our players admire the English game. Mentally they are strong, and they have good quality players.
“Capello has made them stronger, I have seen them play many times on TV and I have been impressed with England.
“They have a chance, but Spain will be tough, along with Brazil and Italy, and it will be a great World Cup with some surprises. It’s about belief as well - and Capello’s strong personality will be good for England.”