Nobody has scored more goals for the Three Lions, nor has any outfield player won more caps, than the 33-year-old, who will come on against the United States of America in Thursday’s friendly at Wembley.
Rooney’s 120th and final cap could well be the last time he steps out on an English pitch, where the DC United forward is set to be joined by his children during a pre-match guard of honour that will end with him collecting a memento from Football Association chairman Greg Clarke.
The way his record-breaking international career is being recognised in Thursday’s Wayne Rooney Foundation International has divided opinion, which Southgate believes highlights the lack of appreciation for the former Manchester United striker.
“I think that has been clear this week – it has been disappointing to see him almost have to defend his inclusion in the game but that is where we are,” the England boss said.
“The more important thing is that within the England group we value what he has done, when you are in the dressing room and share the dressing room with someone you know.
“The hardest thing in football is to cross the white line and it is incredibly hard when you are the person who is expected to deliver.
“Very few people in the world can appreciate what that feels like, very different to run of the mill players like me who played for England.”
Southgate tried to set the tone of appreciation with a montage video highlighting his contributions, only for television rights issues to mean “no one really had a good montage to capture what I want to”.
The England manager would have loved to have worked with Rooney in his pomp, having got a glimpse of him up close when playing alongside the forward.
“Yes, I think (he is the best England striker I played with),” former defender Southgate said of a player he does not believe is inclined to take a spot-kick on Thursday.
“There have been brilliant players that I played with across 10 years with England.
“It doesn’t seem right to leave the (Frank) Lampards, the (David) Beckhams, the (Teddy) Sheringhams and the (Alan) Shearers out of a list.
“But, for me, (Paul) Gascoigne, (Paul) Scholes and Rooney were just able to do that little bit more than all of the others, incredible players across that period, they were almost three different moments.
“I played with Wayne at the beginning for him, really, so for him to go on and overtake Sir Bobby Charlton’s record and Gary Lineker’s record is incredible.”
Southgate is desperate for the Football Association to harness Rooney’s knowledge and confirmed the governing body is supporting him on the coaching front.
For now, though, the focus is on recognising his achievements. Harry Kane replaced him as captain and played a key role in making sure that Rooney wore the No 10 shirt on Thursday, when former Leeds United midfielder Fabian Delph, skippering his country for the first time, will hand over the armband.
“The senior players discussed it. Harry came to see me and said: ‘Look, we don’t think it would be right for him to come on wearing a shirt he hasn’t worn’,” Southgate said.
“Part of the game is to pay tribute to what he’s done, and I think players always look at how they would like to be treated in that situation.
“I know last week we said it was unlikely because he’d be on the bench, but I think sometimes when you have discussions and you are able to think through what we stand for as a group and the way we’re trying to work, then those moments it’s good for the players to have an opinion.
“They’re the ones who are playing tomorrow. And there’s no rulebook. Who decides?”
Southgate will experiment with Sunday’s Nations League encounter against Croatia looming large, with Joe Gomez set to miss out on Thursday with that match in mind and Luke Shaw a doubt.
“Joe, we’ve modified (his training) in the early part of the week just to make sure that we give him the best chance for being involved on Sunday,” Southgate said.
“We just need to check on Luke Shaw a bit later. Other than that, everybody trained today and no problems.”