Despite experiencing turbulence in the build-up to the tournament, England’s ‘Golden Generation’ jetted into Germany with high hopes, and they cruised through to the last 16 stage after topping Group B. A trademark David Beckham free-kick was enough to dispatch Ecuador and set up a quarter-final clash with Portugal – but things quickly unravelled for Sven Goran Eriksson’s men in Gelsenkirchen.
With the match goalless after an hour of play, Wayne Rooney saw red and decided to mindlessly trample all over ex- Chelsea man Ricardo Carvalho’s leg. Unsurprisingly, the former Manchester United ace saw red again moments later when he was given his marching orders by referee Horacio Elizondo – but only after some gentle encouragement from Rooney’s United teammate, Ronaldo.
As Rooney trudged off the pitch, Ronaldo winked to the Portuguese bench to mark a job well done. England managed to drag the match out to penalties but were dumped out by Portugal after losing their star striker.
Ronaldo’s cheeky antics had the potential to destroy Manchester United’s potent pairing, and it seemed inevitable that the pair’s relationship would implode following the events in Germany. But fortunately for United, Rooney admitted that he would have done the exact same thing if he had been in Ronaldo’s shoes – and he is adamant that the experience even brought them closer together.
Writing in the Sunday Times in April 2020, Rooney recalled: “The game was going OK. Then, early in the second half, came my red card. It was a reaction to the referee not giving me a free kick. There was a clear foul, the former Chelsea defender Ricardo Carvalho was pulling and pushing me and Petit came in from the other side.
“Elizondo did nothing and I planted my foot down on Carvalho — it one of those moments when you’re not thinking. I knew it was a red card and back in the dressing room I watched the rest of the game on a little TV, thinking: ‘If we win this, I’m suspended for a World Cup semi-final and final and if we lose it’s my fault’. It was the worst, weirdest feeling I’ve had in football.
“I had my phone in my hand and I was getting all these messages about Ronaldo. Of course, when he ran over to ask Elizondo to send me off I pushed him away. In that moment I couldn’t believe what he was doing. But sitting in that dressing room gave me time to calm down and think.
“I put myself in Ronaldo’s shoes. Would I do the same? Probably. Would I be in the ref’s face to make sure he got sent off? If he deserved the red, if it would help us win — yes, no question. I’d do it tomorrow. I thought: ‘Actually, I tried to get him booked in the first half for diving’. And the wink thing, I didn’t see anything in that at all. It was nothing. So I calmed down.”
Rooney admits that he had his ‘United head on’ after being sent off and decided that he and Ronaldo needed to iron things out immediately after the match. When he approached Ronaldo for their impromptu tunnel meeting, the ex-Juventus man was apologetic – but Rooney insisted there was no ill-will between the pair and that they should move.
He adds: “I went over to him afterwards in the tunnel. I felt it was important to speak to him while it was still fresh and to do it face to face. He gave me a look as if to say sorry but by then I had my United head on. I said I’ve no issues with you. Enjoy your tournament and good luck. I’ll see you in a few weeks — and let’s go try and win the league.”
Somehow, despite everything that had gone on between the pair during that fiery clash in Gelsenkirchen, Rooney and Ronaldo returned to Old Trafford closer than ever – and United reaped the rewards.
Rooney’s prediction came true, as the pair took their partnership to another level to fire Manchester United to three consecutive Premier League titles. United also won the Champions League before Ronaldo was lured away to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009.
Rooney continued: “The press tried to drag it out all summer, saying we had issues, but we had none. In the first game of the new season we beat Fulham 5-1. I scored two and set him up for one and that calmed everything down.
“In the dressing room we were always really close. It was always the two of us doing pranks on the manager or other players. And what had happened brought us closer together on the pitch.
“The next three years were our best as a partnership and brought three titles and the Champions League. My red card in Gelsenkirchen was the starting point.”