There is a problem with being precocious. Those who start early sometimes finish sooner than their contemporaries. So it may be with Wayne Rooney, who by his own admission is entering a last-chance saloon. First capped at 17, he is now 28, and while it is far from impossible he will still be around for the 2018 tournament in Russia, this could be his final World Cup.
Indeed, Paul Scholes, a voice of Mancunian bluntness, wondered if Rooney will still be playing for Manchester United then, let alone carrying England's hopes. The midfielder played until 38 himself and his long-term teammate Ryan Giggs was in his 41st year when he eventually retired, but Scholes is one of many to wonder if Rooney's physique will equip him to play to a Giggs-esque age. In one respect, he does not have another dozen years. Rooney has a month or so to justify his billing among the world's big-name players on the grandest stage and state his case for a place among England's greats.
Besides the 1966 World Cup winners, players such as Gary Lineker, the top scorer in 1986 and conjuror of the semifinal leveller against Germany four years later, and Paul Gascoigne and David Platt, the catalysts for the surge to the last four in 1990, deserve to rank ahead of Rooney, purely because they delivered when it mattered most. Contemporaries such as Steven Gerrard have at least been reasonable in World Cups; he has been wretched.
His record is dismal: eight barren games, spread over two tournaments. Rooney has more red cards (one) than goals (none) in the global showpiece. To put it another way, he has 14 fewer World Cup goals than Miroslav Klose, an unexceptional talent with an extraordinary record on such stages. The overachieving German and the underachieving Englishman are opposites.
Because, while Rooney won't be billed alongside Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, the chances are he will begin the tournament in the bracket just below them. He has the profile of a superstar; a fleeting glimpse at the figures would suggest he is developing the statistics of one, too. So far he has struck 38 times in 89 games and the probability is that he will end his England career having beaten Peter Shilton's record of 125 caps and topped Bobby Charlton's national best of 49 goals.
He has already scored a national-best 28 goals in competitive games. Yet the numbers are deceptive; that is less impressive than it seems. In the decade since a fearless, fantastic Rooney blazed a trail at Euro 2004, he has scored once in a major tournament. Instead, he has become the king of qualifiers, scourge of Poland rather than Portugal. He is yet to score a meaningful goal in any of England's many defining rivalries: France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and the United States have all discovered the reality of Rooney was less impressive than his reputation.
His debut World Cup amounted to a hubristic fall, from Rooney swaggering back to Baden-Baden after undergoing treatment on a foot injury by announcing "the big man is back in town," to his sending-off against Portugal for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho. The departing manager Sven-Goran Eriksson's subsequent plea -- "Wayne Rooney is the golden boy of English football. Don't kill him because you will need him" -- was heeded. Rooney wasn't demonised, as David Beckham had been for his dismissal against Argentina eight years earlier.
Nor did he provide such a tale of redemption. Perhaps because of turmoil in his private life, Rooney was England's gravest disappointment in the 2010 tournament. He turned up for Euro 2012 suspended for the first two games and out of shape after a postseason break to Las Vegas.
That he took personal trainers on holiday to Portugal this summer at least represented a belated recognition he erred. As Rooney has admitted, there is no excuse for failure this time. That many feel Daniel Sturridge, rather than Rooney, should be the first forward on the teamsheet is an indication that some of the footballing public are starting to question his standing. That he is the probable next England captain, assuming Gerrard and Frank Lampard retire after the tournament, is a sign that managers remain wedded to the idea that the side revolves around Rooney.
But at 28, he is at a crossroads. Scholes may be the most prominent believer that Rooney has already entered his decline, but he is far from the only one. Nevertheless the Merseysider's longevity and consistency at lesser levels means a place in history beckons; he has 216 United goals, with at least 16 in each season, and they include a greater proportion of significant strikes in high-pressure games. Rooney has also signed the most lucrative contract in English football history. Once again, however, it did not meet with universal approval: The past two seasons invite questions if he merits his position as the Premier League's best-paid player when Luis Suarez, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and Robin van Persie, to name but a few, have exerted a greater impact.
And so Rooney is in a curious position for club and country, closing in on major landmarks for both, but, for the more discerning, having to justify his status with both. The Welshman Giggs' nationality deprived him of one opportunity to play in a World Cup. Rooney is on his third chance with England and, after twice trying to leave, his third with United. There may not be too many more.
This article originally appeared on ESPN FC