LONDON — Antonio Conte praised Wayne Rooney as a footballer who “plays with his soul,” adding that the Everton captain has the “passion” to become a manager one day.
Rooney has enjoyed a revival since re-joining Everton from Manchester United last summer, scoring 11 goals in 24 appearances in a troubled campaign that has already seen three managers at Goodison Park.
Chelsea will be Rooney’s next opponents in Saturday’s early kickoff, and Conte warned his players that the 32-year-old is likely to be key to Everton’s attacking threat.
“We must pay great attention because Wayne Rooney is an important player, a good player,” Conte said. “He is showing his ability. For sure, Rooney is one of the best players of Everton. I think it was a great [move] for him. He’s showing he’s a fantastic player.
“He’s continued to play in a fantastic way. We must pay great attention because I think Wayne Rooney is a player who, when he plays, plays with his soul. You can see this during the game.”
Rooney’s return to form at club level has followed hot on the heels of his surprise decision to retire from England duty in August, bringing to an end a 13-year international career that saw him become his country’s most capped player (119 appearances) and all-time top scorer (53 goals).
“We must have great respect for his decision,” Conte added. “Only the player understands when the moment is arriving to say ‘stop’ when it comes to playing for the national team. We must have great respect for this decision. It’s not simple to make.
“To stop your career with the national team is not easy. I’m sure his heart is a bit broken by this decision. But, at the same time, we have to respect it because only the player understands when this moment has come.”
Rooney has spoken in recent months about his desire to one day use his vast playing experience as a springboard into management, and Conte, who successfully made the transition after retiring in 2004, believes the Everton captain has the raw qualities to do the same.
“It’s not simple,” Conte warned. “For sure, you have to [ask] this question to him. I think that he shows great passion. Usually when you have this type of passion, you can do this job. In our job, you must have great passion, great patience, great will to suffer.”
Many have suggested that Rooney’s decline from his United peak was hastened by navigating English football’s gruelling schedule year after year since the age of 16, and Conte added his voice to those whose believe a winter break would benefit everyone.
“If I must be honest, I think that it’s right to play during the Christmas period but, at the same time, after the Christmas period you must have a break,” Conte added. “You must have a break because it’s not simple. I think the players, the coaches are very tired because this busy period starts from November.
“From November, you play every three days until the end of January. Especially if you go through in all the competitions. You have to play every few days, and that’s not simple. The players need a bit of time to recover: one week to recover, and the restart.
“I think it would be right, and I think it’s right to start to think about this opportunity to find a new solution. Because I think you have to try to put every team in the best situation to be competitive in all competitions. Then in February, when the Champions League restarts, you arrive very tired.
“I think it should be good to have a good reflection, to reflect on this situation and try a new solution to help the players, but also to protect the players from injuries and try a bit of rest.”
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.