Ready for his first trip to India, Rooney talks exclusively with TOI at length about the World Cup starting on Sunday.
It is a mid-season World Cup. Please share your thoughts on this.
Yeah, I think it’s strange to have the World Cup in the winter. And all the managers probably would want time to prepare with the players. It seems strange to play the Premier League game a week ago and then the World Cup starts on Sunday. I don’t think the players will be fit but they must be ready for the World Cup. It’s just something different to what we’re used to.
You said the players will be ready. Weather wise, how will it affect a player?
Maybe to a certain extent. But I think the players now are used to playing in all different types of climates. You see teams travelling to Champions League games where they’re going from one extreme to the other. It will have an effect, but maybe not as much as everyone thinks. I don’t think it will be a major issue to be honest.
Can you share your thoughts on England? After reaching semifinals in Russia and finals of Euro, is this the best time, place, opportunity for England to bring the cup home?
I think it’s a good opportunity. Any tournament that England play, we’re hoping we can win it. It’s obviously going to be a difficult tournament in Qatar for anyone to win. I think we’ve got a favourable group. We should go through the group stages and then obviously you need a bit of luck in the knockout stages. With a bit of luck, of course, they’re capable of winning the World Cup. It is a good enough team led by a good manager. Brazil are looking like a very good squad. Argentina too have had a successful run. Obviously, France and Belgium or Germany are right up there. The team that finds that consistency throughout the tournament will win.
What’s the single most important aspect that has impressed you about England?
We have quite a few young players in the squad who are exciting. I think with the experience of the last two tournaments will help England. The players get that experience of going into a semifinal and into a final will really help them. The big thing is to get into a good momentum and then confidence will flow.
Who would pose the biggest challenge to England in the group stage?
I think all three matches will be challenging in their own way. Iran is coached by Carlos Queiroz. They will be very difficult on the ball. I think Wales will trouble us on the counterattack. And USA, under Gregg Berhalter, will take the game to England. Our boys should keep the focus and concentration. I feel confident that they should win all three games.
Can the South Americans break Europe’s monopoly this time?
I think they can. The two obvious ones are Brazil and Argentina. One of these two teams can certainly win the Cup. I think Brazil probably has got the best squad, but consistency will be the key. The South Americans bring that flair to the tournament which is a bit different from what we get from the European teams. It would be interesting to see how that pans out.
WAZZA AT HIS BEST: Wayne Rooney played three World Cups and four Euros. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
As a coach, can you highlight the strengths of the South Americans?
They know all the tricks, the small things, which goes on the pitch, and then they execute them very well. As for England, I said this about 10 years ago, that’s what England lacked. Those little tricks that really distort the opposition. The European teams are probably a bit more disciplined than South American teams in terms of the team shape. We tend to do what the coach wants us to do. We have seen in the past that the South Americans add more numbers in attack to show their flair and don’t keep their shape.
Flair brings spectators to the ground but that doesn’t win trophies, right?
Yeah. It’s true for some years now. But earlier we have seen Brazil and Argentina win the Cup. With Pele and Maradona. Players with magic and that is what fans want to see. They want to see the more skillful players being given the ball and allowed to express. But as a coach, sometimes you want discipline. It depends on the balance of your squad and your team and how you allow the better players to express themselves.
As a coach now, would you allow flair players the freedom to express themselves?
Of course, I would. That would create those moments in football which people don’t forget. For a few attacking players, you want them to play with an expression and freedom which allow them to go and have these magic moments. And tell them not to be afraid to make a mistake.
Given their ageing defence, do you still consider Brazil as favourites?
I think Tite has got a lot of players with quality. It is about getting the balance, the chemistry and the team spirit right, and not just on match days. Obviously, Tite will not start with nine attackers even though he has picked them. They are a very good team but you’ve seen in the past that sometimes favourites don’t always win. I remember during 2004 when Greece won the Euros, Mourinho’s Porto won the Champions League. They won through hard work and togetherness. I’m sure there’s going to be a team or two that will spring surprises.
It is Neymar’s third World Cup. Is Neymar causing imbalance in the Brazil set-up?
It depends on the system and how the coach positions him. He is a fantastic player and scored a hatful of goals. As a coach, I would rather have in my team than in opposition. I’m sure the Brazil coach will have set him up in the right way and help Brazil to win their sixth.
Where would you like Neymar to play?
He can play across the front third. To be honest, I would probably ask him to start on the left because it would allow him to pick the ball up and run, rather than play with his back to the goal. He can create great opportunities for others and for himself. For me, left wing is his best position.
Lionel Messi is maybe playing his last World Cup. Will it add to the pressure on him and his team Argentina?
I’m sure he’s used to dealing with expectations. The idea of leaving a legacy is surely going through his mind. I would love to see either Messi or (Cristiano) Ronaldo win the World Cup. It would be a fitting end to their incredible careers. I’m sure Messi will be doing everything he can to try and help Argentina win.
Who are your four semifinalists?
I will go with Belgium. Germany. Argentina and England.
Defending champions France are not in your thoughts?
They have a few players who recently won the World Cup. But they will miss N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba. Still, they are a threat with (Kylian) Mbappe, Karim (Benzema) and (Raphael) Varane.
Players you will keenly follow in the World Cup?
There are a few England players like Harry Kane and Phil Foden. And I’m interested in watching Brennan Johnson of Wales. Gabriel Jesus is another one. It’d be interesting to see if Jesus can replicate his Arsenal form.
So, Wayne wants either Messi or Ronaldo to win the World Cup…
If it’s not England, then I would like either of them to win the Cup. It’d be nice to see a fantastic end to their incredible careers.
How excited are you to be addressing an Indian audience during a World Cup?
I am extremely excited. It will be my first time in India. I am looking forward to reaching Mumbai on Saturday.
(Wayne Rooney will be part of Viacom18 Sports’ expert panel for FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The matches will be shown live on Sports18 and JioCinema)