Hot and bothered: Wayne Rooney cools down during England's opening World Cup clash with Italy.

Hot and bothered: Wayne Rooney cools down during England's opening World Cup clash with Italy. Photo: Reuters

The message to Wayne Rooney could have been no clearer. Neymar, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben had shown England's senior striker what needs to be done at World Cups. Great players are not visitors to the grandest stage. They write their names across the sky.

Not only Brazil's poster boy and Holland's R & R: Chile's marvellous strike runner, Alexis Sanchez, started this tournament with a flourish. Even Costa Rica's Joel Campbell jumped in on the act with a boisterous performance in his country's win over Uruguay. Mario Balotelli is also on the board.

Rooney's response? A quiet first half-hour of confusion about whether to help left-back Leighton Baines deal with a wave of Italian attacks or join the creative department further up the pitch.

Just as the dump-Rooney society was starting to rev up, Raheem Sterling struck a sweet pass for England's senior striker to deliver the perfect left-foot cross into the path of Daniel Sturridge to equalise. But a painfully missed chance in the second half and another wild shot raised further doubts about his place in this team.

The spirit of Brazilian football has inspired the finest players to uphold the great tradition. England's youngsters answered that call with some of their best attacking play in years.

If you step on a Brazilian pitch, it is not to go through the motions. Sluggishness, mediocrity and timidity are exposed by the buttercup light in these parts. England was keen to join that party. Rooney, though, is not yet through the door.

In the launderette heat of Manaus, it was not only two vast rivers that converged. England's past (Rooney) was meeting up with its future: Sturridge and Sterling, with Rooney shunted to the left.

Italy was in no mood to comfort him. Though Glen Johnson offered a more inviting target down England's right, Cesare Prandelli's legion of midfielders knew they could nullify Rooney's threat by going after Baines. So they pinned him back with repeated attacks. Rooney was thus caught between tactical discipline and an urge to join Sterling, Sturridge and Danny Welbeck in weaving patterns round Italy's penalty area.

Comparisons are increasingly weighing him down, because he was meant to be on the path to greatness but has never arrived.

The curse of potential is that you are always assessed retrospectively. To recap a painful statistic, Rooney has yet to score in nine matches at three World Cups, despite his generally excellent goal-getting record in national colours. Thirty-nine leaves him one shy of Michael Owen.

A commonly held view of him is that his best days are behind him. Taken further, the theory is that he is now clinging to his elevated status, and trying to justify two large pay rises at Manchester United, where van Persie is bound to be the darling of Louis van Gaal, the new manager. Rooney must have watched RVP and van Gaal high-fiving (or high-missing) each other in the Spain-Holland game with a rueful sense of his place in the new Old Trafford hierarchy.

The relief for all England fans is that the one-man show has now closed and has given way to interest in younger, fresher names.

An example, from the opposition, was Balotelli, who joined Neymar, van Persie and company when meeting Antonio Candreva's cross to head Italy's winner. Rooney is in a struggle to stay relevant.

Telegraph, London