In the last few days, Wayne Rooney has become the ninth male English footballer to achieve the milestone of one hundred caps. He is also now only four goals away from breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s longstanding record of 49 goals for England. This has led to the usual inevitable questions being raised once again: Is Rooney an England great? Who is the greatest ever English player? Wouldn’t being the country’s record goalscorer make Rooney an undisputed legend of English football? Everyone else is having their say, so I thought I might as well chip in too!
Statistics are an interesting way of looking at any sport. Geek alert!! – I like statistics, I enjoy knowing athletics records, and finding out cricket stats and facts about tennis, hockey, the Olympics… you name it. However, my overriding belief is that statistics never lie, but they don’t tell the whole story. Anyone who has read the book or seen the movie version of ‘Moneyball’ may know what I’m getting at. It’s all well and good making a judgment on a player based on numbers – what they have achieved in the past and what they are projected to achieve in the future – but in general, success in sport is about more than just goals, averages or percentages. As fans, we want entertainment, skill and personality as well as performers who deliver on statistics. In team sports, complex dynamics may also be at work: for example, I would rather play alongside somebody who contributes positively to a team in other ways as well as scoring a good amount of goals rather than a player who may have ‘the best statistics’ but doesn’t necessarily have a positive impact on his or her team mates. Here’s a great example from water polo –
Manuel Estiarte, “the Maradona of water polo” was Pep Guardiola’s assistant coach at Barcelona and has continued in this role at Bayern Munich. He played in six Olympic Games, won 578 caps for Spain and was voted the best player in the world for seven years in a row. But despite having an outstanding individual in Estiarte, Olympic gold eluded the Spanish team until their star player reassessed his own role in the team:
“Working co-operatively with his teammates, he began to play a more supporting, enabling role. Almost inevitably, Estiarte lost the top spot in terms of goals scored, but his sacrifice changed the fortunes of the whole team and Spain won Olympic gold and the World Cup consecutively.”
(From ‘Pep Confidential’ by Marti Perarnau, p50 on iBook edition.)
So, is Rooney an England great? To begin with, let’s consider a few stats. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to apologise to the likes of Jimmy Greaves and Michael Owen, and compare Rooney only with Gary Lineker and Sir Bobby Charlton.
- BC: 49 in 106 (strike rate = 0.46 goals per game)
- GL: 48 in 80 (strike rate = 0.6 goals per game)
- WR: 46 in 101* (strike rate = 0.46 goals per game) *so far
So on the basis of goals scored, whilst Charlton (currently) leads the way, Rooney has the same strike rate. Lineker was the most efficient of these top three England goalscorers. Interestingly, there are only two England players to have a goals per game ratio of more than a goal per game. Steve Bloomer (1.22) and Vivian Woodward (1.26) both played more than one hundred years ago – and didn’t score nearly as many goals or play as many games as Charlton, Lineker and Rooney.
- BC: 4 World Cup goals in 14 World Cup games (4 World Cups)
- GL: 10 World Cup goals in ? World Cup games (2 World Cups)
- WR: 1 World Cup goal in ? World Cup games (3 World Cups)
Lineker also comes out on top in terms of efficiency in front of goal on the big stage. He is the only English player ever to have received the World Cup’s Golden Boot Award (having scored six in the 1986 tournament). Charlton is the only one of these three strikers to have been part of a World Cup winning team. Rooney has been vilified for his lack of World Cup goals – he scored his first at his third World Cup tournament during Brazil 2014. However, he has scored five European Championship goals to Charlton’s one and Lineker’s zero.
Attempting to compare players across different teams and different eras is one of the reasons the question ‘Who is the greatest?’ is pretty much impossible to answer. It is of course an interesting debate for pundits and fans, but even when you’re relying purely on numbers it’s difficult to make fair comparisons. As I said earlier, statistics don’t tell the whole story – you have to look beyond the numbers to get a truer picture. For example, whilst it is often highlighted that Rooney has only scored one World Cup goal, he has scored 32 goals in matches that do mean something – World Cups, European Championships and Qualifying Tournaments. Meanwhile, only 11 of Charlton’s total were scored in major tournament games and qualifiers – the vast majority were scored in friendlies (22) and the now defunct British Championship (16).
The success of a player’s team also has an impact on our perceptions of their greatness. As a World Cup winner, Charlton has been immortalised in the history of English football regardless of whether Rooney or anyone else beats his goalscoring record in the future. This is obviously a major factor that has also impacted on the Messi vs Maradona debate. Maradona won the World Cup with Argentina – Messi has yet to do so. For some people, this means that Maradona is the greater player. This is another interesting part of the debate: cause and effect. Was Maradona the difference in Argentina winning in 1986? Or was he an integral part of a wider group of talented players? I think this is an interesting part of the ‘Rooney debate’. He may have only scored one World Cup goal, but is it fair to expect him to have done much better when the team has actually done progressively worse across the three tournaments he has played (2006 – QF; 2010 – Last 16; 2014 – Group stage), suggesting England isn’t exactly a major force in international football? Can one man be expected to shoulder the whole responsibility for the team’s lack of success? Or would a greater player have managed to have a greater impact than Rooney has done? I think it’s probably also worth mentioning that Rooney isn’t doing too badly to be close to the record at the age of 29 given the amount of pressure and criticism from the media and ‘fans’ that he is forced to deal with most of the time.
As I mentioned above, there are other considerations when assessing who is the greatest: consistency, longevity, the way the game is played by different teams in different eras. If we use goalscoring as a marker, what is most significant: number of goals scored, or the importance of those goals? Jimmy Greaves is the fourth highest England goalscorer, but Geoff Hurst started ahead of him in the 1966 World Cup final and scored three of the four most famous goals in English football history. What impact does that have on our perceptions? Then there is the whole club or country debate. Ronaldo and Messi both have astounding scoring stats for their clubs, but simply aren’t as prolific on the international stage. Does this make them any less great?
Here, I have focused predominantly on goalscoring. This criterion presumes that the greatest players also score the most goals, which is flawed in itself because there are obviously many more qualities to greatness in football than who sticks the ball in the back of the net. Some people may consider Sir Bobby Moore to be England’s greatest ever player. Goalkeeper Peter Shilton still holds the record number of caps for England at 125. There will be an interesting decision to be made on the Ballon d’Or this year: Ronaldo – match-winning, record-breaking club goal machine versus Manuel Neuer – World Cup champion, game-saving sweeper-keeper. Good luck deciding ‘who is better’ there, FIFA.
I’ll leave you with a few more stats. You can decide how you choose to interpret them…
- Rooney’s current international goals per game record (0.46) is just lower than Messi’s (0.47) but is better than Cristiano Ronaldo’s (0.44).
- Didier Drogba, Robbie Keane and Samuel Eto’o all have the same current international strike rate as Messi.
- Abby Wambach, the US striker, is the highest women’s international goalscorer with a current tally of 177 goals in 228 matches (0.78 goals per game). There are thirteen female footballers who have scored 100 or more international goals. Keep going Wayne, you’re almost halfway there…