Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson blamed too much "expectation" placed on the shoulders of Wayne Rooney for the player's poor showing in the World Cup and said he was "baffled" by England's failure to capture anything like the performances they achieved in qualifying.
Speaking for the first time about Rooney's form for England after his best-ever season for Manchester United, Ferguson said that too much had been expected of the 24-year-old. In a wide-ranging interview, the United manager said that, in his opinion, the outstanding player of the tournament so far had been Germany's midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Ferguson said: "I think there was such expectation on him [Rooney]. There was talk he was going to be the player of the tournament. Don't forget, that was the prelude to the whole thing – he was going to be the star, he was going to outshine them all, [Lionel] Messi, [Cristiano] Ronaldo. So that level of expectation comes into it. And he's not got great experience of the World Cup really. You wait in four years' time, you'll see a different player."
Rooney was injured playing against Bayern Munich in the Champions League in March and although he played in the return leg game he never recaptured his earlier form. Since sustaining the ankle ligament injury, Rooney has not scored in a game for United or England, apart from one in a friendly against the South African side Platinum Stars.
Ferguson also blamed the same burden of expectation for the failings of the England team, claiming they had had an "easy" ride in qualifying despite them having to play Croatia and Ukraine. Bizarrely, he compared their qualifying groups to those the other home nations had to navigate, ignoring the fact that England are seeded, and therefore avoid the bigger nations, while the likes of Wales and Scotland are not.
On England, Ferguson said: "Expectation was a big thing. There was a big expectation. They qualified from a group which you'd have to say was a million to one that they wouldn't qualify. So it was an easy passage into the finals. You look at Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland. They all had tough groups against Germany, France, Holland.
"Maybe it would have been better if England had been in a tougher group. They'd have earned the right to be one of the favourites, and would have helped that they'd played against good teams before they got there. That expectation was huge on them. I feel for them because it was a burden on them.
"That is going to be one of the imponderables – what has really happened and why are they not getting better form? I watched their games and I was baffled by what I saw, too, but I wasn't totally surprised. They have been away for a long time.
"There are a lot of factors. And another thing you have got to think about is that none of the English team have any experience of playing in a semi-final at a World Cup. Whereas the German mentality is that they are always in the semi-finals. So if I was the coach of Germany I would be saying, 'We are always in the semi-finals, this is Germany'. They have got that on their CV."
Ferguson picked out Dirk Kuyt as an example of a Premier League player who coped with the demands of the season and has still flourished at the World Cup finals Ferguson said: "It's hard to explain the whole panorama [sic] of that. The likes of Kuyt and the Spanish players who are playing in the Premier League. But all the England team are playing in it so they're all affected. Whereas Spain have one or two, Holland have one or two. They don't all play in England.
"Maybe Kuyt is just exceptional in terms of stamina. That's how it seems to me every time I watch him for Liverpool. I see him with Holland and Liverpool and he's always running. I remember Cafu [captain of the victorious Brazil team in 2002, aged 32] who was up and down the touchline at 38 – it was like the guy had two hearts."
Ferguson also acknowledged the contribution of Diego Forlan, who plays for Uruguay in the semi-final against the Holland tonight and whom United sold in 2004. Ferguson said: "I sent him a text the other day. It's absolutely fantastic. We're all proud of him. The combination of him and Ruud van Nistelrooy just did not work.
"The boy had other issues too – his sister's health. I think he always wanted to get to Spain at some point in his career. The only criticism we can make of ourselves is we sold him too cheaply. He was very unlucky with us. He's a great lad, a great professional, he spoke five languages, he's a great tennis player, too."