RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The burden of delivering at the World Cup has consumed Wayne Rooney in the past, seeming to hinder his ability to deliver on football’s biggest stage.
In eight games across two World Cups, the England striker has not scored a single goal, looking agitated and unsettled in Germany and South Africa — a shadow of the dynamic, top-earning Premier League performer.
At 28, just when footballers should be reaching their football peak, Rooney knows he must deliver in Brazil if England is to progress, starting on Saturday against Italy in Manaus.
“I’ve always been hard on myself,” Rooney said Wednesday. “I’m a confident person and I believe in my ability. So I believe I’ve always put myself under that pressure because I know I can perform. I have no excuses.”
Free of injury and with his Manchester United future resolved, Rooney wants to turn the clock back to a time when he was more of a free spirit on the pitch.
“I’ve maybe put myself under too much pressure,” Rooney told reporters at England’s Rio de Janeiro base. “Maybe you guys, the media, have put me under a lot of pressure and I’ve tried to respond to that. This time I haven’t and I’m not going to.”
The 2006 tournament ended for Rooney with a red card against Portugal, and his frustrations spilled over four years later when he criticized England fans for booing him after another poor performance.
“I’ve learned to enjoy this one because I haven’t enjoyed the last ones, they’ve not gone well,” Rooney reflected on his checkered World Cup record. “All of a sudden you’re looking back and they’ve gone and I didn’t enjoy it. This one I’m going to enjoy it regardless of what happens.”
Because if you can’t enjoy a World Cup in Brazil what can you enjoy in football?
“I feel great and feel better than I have done for years,” he said. “I’ve had time to prepare with the team. I’ve done that. I’ve gone into previous tournaments with little niggles or different things, but I’ve not missed a session.”
Working with the talented newcomers in the squad, including Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling and Luke Shaw, is reviving memories for Rooney of when he burst onto the international scene as an 18-year-old scoring four goals at the 2004 European Championship.
“That’s the good thing about the younger lads in the squad: you can see that in them, in Ross and Raheem ... there’s no fear,” Rooney said. “We’ve got a lot of energy, a lot of pace in the team, and if we can pick the right moments we can really hurt teams with the pace and tempo that we can hit them.”
Despite his poor World Cup record, Rooney’s 39 goals in 92 England appearances should ensure he starts up front against Italy — contrary to the unusually candid and vocal criticism from former Manchester United teammate Paul Scholes recently.
“I’m sure he’s upset a lot of people at Man United because they see me as worthy of signing a new deal at the club, so they obviously have got different opinion to what Paul has,” Rooney said. “It was a big strange.”
But Rooney has become adept to coping with criticism. He’s had little choice, having come under fire over his aggressive streak, scoring struggles and problems in his personal life at stages in his career.
“If someone is shouting at me, I have no problem with that,” he said, after a season when United performed woefully in the post-Alex Ferguson era. “You can see some players it really affects them. It’s not something I get concerned with.”
Just as he is not too concerned about facing Italy in the humidity of Manaus.
“When you play a high tempo they’ve struggled,” Rooney said of Saturday’s opponents. “The Italian league is nowhere near the tempo of the Premier League. Even when we played AC Milan, with (Alessandro) Nesta and (Paolo) Maldini were center halves, they really struggled when we’ve played a high tempo. If we can do that I am sure we will give them problems.”
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris