Be careful what you wish for
BARCELONA -- It's astonishing but true that on the cusp of his 25th birthday and only six months after he scored 34 goals between August and March last season, Wayne Rooney's career and personal life are on the brink of spiraling out of control.
Domestically, he has had to beg for privacy from the U.K. media, while he attempts to make peace with his wife, Coleen, over allegations from prostitute Jennifer Thompson that he paid her for sex. In August, he was photographed smoking and urinating in public.
Both subjects have infuriated Sir Alex Ferguson. And the timing couldn't be worse for the manager. The Red Devils are playing poorly, Rooney is carrying a minor ankle injury and his agents seem to be pushing their client to sign a record breaking new contract -- with another club.
On Tuesday, Ferguson confirmed in a press conference that Rooney wants out of Old Trafford. Instead of sounding his usual combative self, Ferguson was glum as he talked about his disappointment in learning that Rooney had decided to leave Manchester United.
While Ferguson said the club would leave the door open, it appears that Rooney is as good as gone. But where should he go? There's been plenty of speculation that he might head for Spain, but would that be the right move?
If Rooney chooses poorly, as, for example, Robinho did when he left Real Madrid, he could easily find himself floundering abroad while regretting leaving Old Trafford. What's more, not many footballers leave the modern Manchester United and better themselves. But the last two players to do so successfully both went to Spain.
On the recommendation of Ferguson's brother Martin, Diego Forlan signed for United in 2001, but scored only 17 times in 63 matches. His post-United career has been much more impressive. Forlan has scored 59 times in 106 games for Villarreal and 89 times in 107 games for his current club Atletico Madrid. He's twice won the European Golden Boot for leading scorer and, most recently, won the Golden Ball at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
La Liga has been brilliant for him.
Cristiano Ronaldo didn't win a trophy last season at Real Madrid but is currently on blistering form. Most judges would make the point that Ronaldo has become a more complete and mature footballer since moving to the Bernabeu from Old Trafford in 2009.
La Liga is proving to be the right place for him.
As an aside, it would be hard to argue that David Beckham bettered himself at Real Madrid (two trophies in four years) compared to his time at Manchester United (11 trophies in eight years). That said, he won immense respect for his remarkable battling qualities during a time when Real Madrid was weak but eventually won the La Liga title in the final year of his contract.
It was during Beckham's era at Real Madrid that president Florentino Perez spoke highly of Rooney. "He is the one remaining world star that we don't have at this club," Perez told reporters.
And while Beckham played at the Bernabeu, Rooney's agent, Paul Stretford, handled the move of Thomas Gravesen from Everton to Madrid in 2005. Stretford met with Perez and, even then, discussed the idea of Rooney playing for the club one day.
Rooney also has admirers at Barcelona. After losing the 2009 Champions League final to Barca, he walked into the United dressing room and told his teammates that Andres Iniesta was the best player in the world. When I asked Iniesta about the comment, he told me: "I could just as easily have said the same thing about him and his talents. Wayne has always impressed me, he works so unbelievably hard for the team and, above that, he has so much quality."
British players have tended to struggle with the culture shock -- new language, food and climate -- that comes from moving abroad. It's unlikely that Rooney, a very English Englishman, could break that pattern.
Spain is also known for its technically gifted players. Rooney does have brilliant abilities, but his physical power and aggression are often anathema to Spanish referees. If Rooney came to La Liga, he would have to tone down his game -- and then, you must wonder, how that would affect his overall play at a time when he's mired in a slump?
But Real Madrid might make sense for Rooney, because the typical obstacles of culture and style of players are not as daunting at the moment. Manager Jose Mourinho not only speaks perfect English, but he adores the EPL culture of commitment, healthy aggression, competitive spirit and hunger. Ronaldo and Rooney, without being bosom buddies, like each other and share a language. Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa, Sami Khedira, Lassana Diarra, Mahamadou Diarra, Ricardo Carvalho and Iker Casillas all speak English to a greater or lesser extent as well.
But there is one overriding concern if Rooney were to come to Spain. The very off-field behavior which has left him in the dog-house at Old Trafford would, if repeated, leave him ostracized, humiliated and pursued by Paparazzi here in Spain.
Either he discovers maturity and greater self restraint or La Liga, particularly Real Madrid, is not the place for him.
Rooney's agents may think they are very clever because they know how to leak information about their client to the UK media. But their worth to him will eventually be measured by quality of advice, not the amount of newspaper columns and television coverage. Happy birthday on Sunday, Wayne. But be careful what you wish for.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.