Swearing by Rooney
Golly, what's the world coming to when a soccer player is caught swearing in the heat of battle?
And not just any soccer player, mind you, but the famously squeaky-clean and monkish Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney, whom millions of children look up to as a role model of all that is pure and noble about the sport.
Could this finally be the death knell of Western Civilization as we know it?
As Rooney himself might say, "Are you #%&$ kidding me?"
If Wazza had limited himself on Saturday only to dropping the F-bomb on camera, I would worship the ground he spits on. But contrary to what the FA school marms might bleat at you -- and he faces the possibility of a fine or ban -- Rooney's more enduring weekend contribution was to settle the title race with a defiantly redemptive hat trick that pulled United back from the abyss and sent Arsenal hurtling over the edge once and for all.
Even though I thought the race was over two weeks ago when Arsenal could muster only a 2-2 draw with mighty West Brom, my fellow Gooners branded me a turncoat for my doomsaying.
Funny, I don't hear much bravado today after United staged yet another heroic comeback from two goals down at halftime (their third time this season) to thump West Ham 4-2, while Arsenal responded to its latest challenge by once again sinking to the occasion. The Gunners' effort in a 0-0 tie against a Blackburn side reduced to 10 men was so limp that next year's shirt sponsorship should be sold to Pfizer.
It was also Arsenal's third straight league draw, and even manager Arsene Wenger knew better than to utter any Gallic hooey about his team's destiny still being in its hands now that the Gunners are seven points back -- albeit with one more match to play than United.
At this rate, United's much-anticipated May 1 visit to the Emirates, which once loomed as the potential tipping point of the race, has taken on an unspeakable plot twist: United could clinch its 19th title at Arsenal's fortress, sending Gooners into a farrago of self-loathing not seen since that second-half collapse to Newcastle or the Carling Cup meltdown -- or, hell, any result in the past six weeks.
If that nightmare scenario occurs, the Gunners would have to look no further than Rooney to understand the difference between the Premiership's top two teams. Put most simply, Arsenal does not have a player who competes with the kind of primal fury that would result in an R-rated scream in front of the cameras. (There's hope for young Jack Wilshire, but so far he reserves his vitriol for bar brawls and those meanies on Twitter.)
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This is not meant to endorse Rooney's general recklessness -- his elbow to the head of Wigan's James McCarthy was worthy of a three-match suspension -- but for the moral guardians of the FA to get their knickers in a twist over some bad language on the field is even more laughable than Sir Alex's touchline ban. Rooney's outburst didn't question the integrity of the officials, which Didier Drogba did so memorably after Chelsea lost to Barcelona in a 2009 Champions League semifinal. This was simply a case of a 25-year-old man-child's passion running amok, and that emotion manifests itself in different ways.
After seeing Javier Hernandez kneeling in prayer on the center circle before kickoff, is anyone surprised that he celebrated his goal on Saturday with a beatific smile on his face and a finger pointed toward the heavens? Or that Dimitar Berbatov, the elegantly nonchalant Bulgarian, simply shrugs after conjuring a jaw-dropping piece of skill? But for someone like Rooney, who plays with a chip on his shoulder the size of his head, the act of scoring is cathartic, especially in a season that hasn't exactly been annus mirabilis.
Let's not forget that until his acrobatic winner at the death against Man City right around Valentine's Day, many United fans were questioning whether he should be in the starting lineup. But Sir Alex never lost faith in his prodigal son, convinced that Rooney would eventually rediscover his goal-scoring mojo and become the fearsome striker he was before last year's ankle injury in the Champions League. Though he's had a few moments of inspiration since the Manchester derby, for the most part he has been strangely mute.
In fact, Rooney's malaise was so patently obvious during the first half against West Ham that both Ian Darke and Steve McManaman were openly critical of his play, citing his lack of touch and killer instinct. "He's not in this game today," said Macca after Rooney dawdled in the box and was stripped of the ball from behind.
"This has generally been a disappointing season for Rooney," echoed Darke moments later when Rooney theatrically flopped to the ground, trying to draw a foul.
No doubt galvanized by Sir Alex's halftime oratory -- Ferguson's pseudo ban doesn't preclude him from plugging in the hairdryer at intermission -- Rooney stormed out for the second half, full of energy and aggression. When United drew a free kick some 25 yards out, he all but elbowed set-piece maestro Ryan Giggs out of the way and bent the ball around the wall and into the right hand of the net.
At that moment, I knew West Ham's -- and my -- day, which began with so much promise, would not end well, and I ordered my first beer. It was 8:45 a.m. ET.
Then Ferguson threw on Chicharito and Berbatov to partner Rooney up front and moved Giggs to left back in place of Patrice Evra for even more attacking thrust. Within minutes, United had a second tally, thanks to a superb Antonio Valencia pass (what a difference the Ecuadorian has made since returning from injury) that found Rooney on the right side of the box. Without looking up, he lashed the ball first time across the face of the goal into the left-hand corner. Then, when Matthew Upson handled the ball in the penalty area, Rooney stepped up and completed his first hat trick since January 2010, when he scored four against Hull City.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
Certainly, this was an accomplishment worthy of a rousing celebration, but Rooney is not the kind of player who auditions for "Dancing with the Stars" by doing a post-goal boogie near the corner flag. For better and for worse, he is all about animal instinct, so his pent-up frustration came pouring out in front of the TV camera positioned near the West Ham goal. If the language wasn't the most eloquent, the sentiment behind it was. Rooney had refused to accept that United's cause was lost when it was down by two goals and had imposed the force of his will on the rest of his teammates. (Wazza has since apologized to the fans, especially parents and children, for working blue, but his mea culpa has upset some soccer pundits even more than his swearing.)
Compare Rooney's fire to Arsenal, which despite the gulf in talent with relegation-threatened Blackburn, had no one to call on to scorch the earth when the game was there for the taking.
That is why United will surely be champion, while Arsenal's once-glorious, much-ballyhooed quest for the quadruple will end with the nonetuple.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."