When Roy Hodgson’s England team lands in Brazil they will not be burdened by a nation’s hopes. There is almost zero expectation that the captain Steven Gerrard will return in July brandishing the World Cup. But for Gerrard’s old teammate Rio Ferdinand – holder of 81 England caps – that’s a good thing. “We got tagged as the ‘Golden Generation’ and that weighed heavily around a lot of our necks. We were never in contention.”
Ferdinand didn’t play under Hodgson and retired from international football last spring. But he describes the England boss (a man fluent in five foreign languages) as a student of the game. “He’s got a free hit with a young squad – to keep the expectations low and real. He’ll be able to prepare for the following tournament. It bodes well for England in years to come.”
Ferdinand is the BBC’s star signing for Brazil. Is he nervous? “If I wasn’t, it would be strange. It’s obviously out of my comfort zone.” But he’s been given training, done some TV work and won’t be going in “completely blind”. And he has the confidence of the BBC’s main presenter Gary Lineker, who backs Rio’s “reputation for telling it how it is”. How did Ferdinand react to pundits as a player? “When you’re winning it’s not a problem. When you’re losing they’re nitpicking.”
We meet in central London at the launch of the BBC’s World Cup campaign. Although we don’t know it at the time, Ferdinand is living out his last few days as a Manchester United player, a club he’d been at for 12 years, winning six Premier League titles, two League Cups and, in 2008, the Champions League as captain. He is 35 now and a married father of three, but he is being supervised and my questions scrutinised. Behind him is a BBC publicist and across the table are two representatives from his agency.
Born to a St Lucian father and an Anglo-Irish mother, Ferdinand was brought up on a Peckham council estate in south London. As a boy he didn’t just play football, but also trained in gymnastics where he was spotted and took up an offer of a scholarship to attend the Central School of Ballet. He divided his time between ballet and football between the ages of 11 to 13. “It wasn’t easy,” he says. “It was probably one of the hardest disciplines I’ve ever done. But it was a chance I grabbed to go out of my area and see different people from different walks of life.” His father told him to choose between ballet and football and his answer led to a glittering career. But ballet helped. “It put me in good stead for my future career – balance, strength and flexibility.”
Before United signed Ferdinand for a then record fee of around £30 million in 2002, he played for West Ham and then Leeds United and was first capped by England at just 19. Now, 16 years later, a life after football beckons. “I’ve prepared myself for it. I’m looking forward to it.” He already owns a restaurant, fashion label and magazine and is taking his coaching badges. “People said to me probably five, six, seven years ago, ‘Why are you doing this? Who do you think you are?’ I always said, ‘When I retire, I’ll have avenues to go down.’ I’m not scared.”
So what did his manager Sir Alex Ferguson think of his extra-curricular activities? “He didn’t want me to do it. But I understand. He was protecting his own investment – they had invested a lot of money and they wanted that player to think solely about playing football.”
At United he was, he says, part of a group of players for whom winning had become a habit. “It’s almost like a drug. You just need to win.” How then did he react to his final disappointing season at Old Trafford under David Moyes? “The new manager comes in, you want to replicate what you’ve done for the old manager. That never changed, the desires were never different, we all wanted to win still. But for whatever reason it didn’t happen and it wasn’t a marriage made in heaven – the league table doesn’t lie.”
Ferdinand hasn’t always been the perfect role model. He’s received four driving bans for speeding and, in 2003, he was banned from the game for eight months after missing a drugs test. Yet his performances on the pitch have been handsomely rewarded – his last contract with United in 2012 was reportedly worth over £5 million a year. Has he saved his money? “Yes. You’ve got to look after your money, but that all comes as a learning curve. Most of us footballers are working class and so no one in our families has seen money like it. They’ve never invested in their life, my family.”
Growing up, Ferdinand experienced racism from some of the boys he played football against as well as from his next-door neighbour. But, he says, he’s never let it affect him. “I’ve always had good, strong parents behind me who’ve made me feel confident and proud of who I am and where I come from. It’s never something that I’ve beat myself up about.”
For years Ferdinand played alongside Chelsea’s John Terry at the heart of England’s defence, but in 2012, Terry was fined by the FA and banned for four games for racially abusing Rio’s brother Anton in a club game. When Terry was selected for Hodgson’s Euro 2012 squad, Ferdinand was left out. Some suspected the manager of pragmatism, side-stepping potential problems by keeping the players apart. What was it like playing with Terry? “We had a good time and a good relationship,” says Ferdinand.
What about race relations generally? “Now we have so much social media we’re seeing a lot more instances of racism coming out. I think we were fooled in this country a little bit.” What about in football? “Football can’t stop racism. Football’s a great tool, but you can have a man who’s 100 per cent a racist, but goes to a football match and says, ‘I’m not going to speak here, but when I get out and go down my local pub I’ll say what the f**k I want’. It’s a bigger social issue than football.”
As for Ferdinand’s future, might he fill the boots of Alan Hansen who is retiring from his BBC pundit’s post after the World Cup final? “We’ll have to wait and see. Got to do the World Cup first. Hopefully I’ll do really well.” At least he will have a role model close to hand. “When people look at Gary Lineker now they don’t say, ‘You know that guy who played for Tottenham and England, a great goal-scorer?’ Now he’s the guy that does Match of the Day, who does crisps, the guy who played football years ago.”
Clearly Rio Ferdinand does not want to be known as an ex-footballer.
How do you rate England’s chances?
I’m confident we’ll get to the quarter-finals. The young players have got energy and are fearless.
England’s key men?
Wayne Rooney has to be fit. He’s limped into most tournaments previously. A fit and firing Rooney will give the younger players confidence. I’m hoping Hodgson will let these players off the leash and allow them to go out and express themselves. We’ve nothing to lose. Nobody expects us to set the tournament alight.
Who will win?
And the dark horses?
Belgium have got a depth of talent. Led by skipper Vincent Kompany, if that talent can be harnessed to a team ethic, they’ll be contenders.
Rio Ferdinand is part of the BBC’s World Cup team of commentators and football pundits