JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The legend of Wayne Rooney seems to travel around England like a game of "Telephone."
Each misdeed grows in unruliness, each triumph escalates in wonder as the stories move from Manchester to Liverpool to London.
By the time his legend - that of the quick-tempered, strong-footed, 24-year-old English striker - reached South Africa, the stories offered by English fans seemed hyperbolic.
"Filthy, filthy mouth," said Phil Kirkham, an Englishman ostensibly in Johannesburg for work, but in actuality here for England's World Cup opening match against the United States. "Did you know that, one time in a 20-second tirade against a referee, he actually swore 60 times. Sixty times."
Or was it 20 times in 60 seconds?
"Horrible, nasty young man," Kirkham continued, with a smile. "But a truly amazing footballer."
A few minutes later, Kirkham offered a possibly apocryphal tale about Rooney's 2002 initiation with his first club, Everton, a story that - unfortunately - would stretch a newspaper's standards.
When he's playing for his current club, Manchester United in the English Premier League, the United States isn't all that concerned with Rooney. He's usually in the far background of American consciousness (residing somewhere with that talented supporting actor, the one who's in all the good movies - what's his name?).
But now, it's the World Cup.
Today, as the United States prepares to face Rooney and his English counterparts, Americans care - well, kind of.
Rooney has been reformed - this was the hot topic in the week before Saturday's match. He isn't the same kid raised in a suburb of Liverpool on one of England's poorest council estates, the one who swore every other word, found himself staring at red cards, admitted to soliciting a prostitute in 2004, and reportedly lost about $1 million in a gambling spree.
At a news conference in London last month, Rooney said he has "matured on and off the pitch."
"Now I probably take my anger out during training the week before the game," explained Rooney.
He certainly can't be the player who, in the 2006 World Cup, was sent off early for kicking Portugal defender Ricardo Carvalho in a spot - cough, cough - where the sun don't shine.
"He's still a young kid and I think he's so mature, mentally, that he can deal with so much of this hype, because it doesn't seem to faze him," said England fan Paul Johnstone at halftime of England's final exhibition match outside of Rustenburg with the Platinum Stars, a South Arican club team on Monday. "I think a couple of years ago, he was very hot-headed and whatnot, but these days he's so mature about things."
A few minutes later, Rooney went into a tirade, arguing with the referee like a baseball manager about to kick dirt at his yellow-shirted adversary. He was given a yellow card, which for Rooney might have been a relief.
Afterward, referee Jeff Selogilwe admitted Rooney was his favorite player and then offered more insight into the pair's interaction.
"Rooney insulted me," Selogilwe told reporters. "He said: 'Blank you.' He is a good player when you see him on the television, but when you see him on the pitch, he just keeps on insulting the referee.
"To me, it looks like Rooney insults people and fouls other players. If he insults a referee like me, then he will use that vulgar language to other referees as well. He must learn to control his temper. He could get sent off in the World Cup, especially if he uses this kind of language."
By way of apology, Rooney offered Selogilwe his game jersey; he remains the referee's favorite player.
"On the field, he's a little arrogant, but aren't they all?" said Scottish-born Justin Reid, who currently lives in South Africa. Reid's assessment might be biased, as he was wrapped in the scarf of Liverpool, Manchester United's rival.
"Rooney has kept his nose clean," said Johnstone, the aforementioned England fan. Indeed, since that 2004 "mishap" with prostitution, Rooney has basically stayed away from off-the-field trouble: He married his childhood sweetheart, Coleen, and the couple have a baby boy, Kai. In tribute, Rooney tattooed his back with his son's name in script, above which are hands praying with angel wings. (Rooney has multiple tattoos, including "Just Enough Education To Perform," after an album by his favorite band, the Stereophonics, inscribed on his right arm.)
Johnstone, wearing a white-and-red England jersey, added: "As long as he does that, when he plays for his local side, there will always be the haters there when they're playing against him. But when he plays for his country, and the form he's in, you have to get behind him."
Rooney's form is top-notch.
During the 2009-10 season, he scored 34 goals in 44 matches. He enters the World Cup in his career's finest form, burying an astonishing number of his chances.
On Monday night outside of Rustenburg, in between shouting matches at Selogilwe, Rooney looked like the forward who could bury the U.S.
He missed one chance, a strike just outside the box that flew like an arrow: fast, but wavering right. Near the end of the match, a cross, low and bouncing, came from the left side. It was a ball most strikers would struggle with. Rooney short-hopped it off the turf, swung through with his right leg, and pounded it - one bounce - past the keeper.
His playing style is a reflection of his temper - or vice versa. He leaves his zone, chases the ball, and goes after balls no one else would.
"It makes it difficult for defenders to mark him," said Steve Komphela, coach of the Platinum Stars. "He goes all over the place, touching the ball, and whenever you don't expect it, he's back in his zone again."
In conclusion: Rooney hunts the ball like there's gold inside it.
"I don't think I ever look forward to facing Wayne," said U.S. goalie Tim Howard, who plays for Everton in the Premiership. "He's the best striker in the world, so I'll be very careful what I say there. I know all his qualities - it doesn't make it any easier."
All of this information, Rooney's all-world skill coupled with an obvious Achilles heel, has led to one question: Will the U.S. employ Portugal's strategy of "winding up" Mr. Rooney?
"You could tell when he was going to get booked," said U.S. goalie Marcus Hahnemann, who plays for the Premier League side Wolverhampton. "You'd go, 'OK, he's pissed off - watch him chase, run around, and he's going to kill someone in a second.' And sure enough, about 45 seconds later, he was getting booked . . . now, that [behavior is] under control."
"I don't think it's as difficult to wind him up as the people and the media think," said U.S. defender Jay DeMerit.
Added fellow U.S. defender Jonathan Spector, who plays for West Ham in the Premier League: "I don't think that's something we're going to focus on, picking on certain players."
"I get asked the question about Wayne Rooney all the time," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "No, we don't enter into all of that. It'll be a good, hard game."
"I don't want to say too much because I don't want to give away our game plan," said U.S. midfielder Ricardo Clark.
Rooney is 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, thick like a rugby player or a catcher, rough around the edges. Perhaps no country in this World Cup will depend on one player's scoring as much as England will on Rooney's.
"He's a genius, he's loved, he's going to be our savior," screamed an England fan at the exhibition match, when asked of Rooney's relationship with his country.
"He's a legend," said another young man, hustling past, late for the second half's start.
A legend, yes - of that you can be sure.
Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at 856-779-3844 or email@example.com.