Steven Gerrard: Greatness thrust upon him?

When England embark on their World Cup journey tonight, their captain will be a player who wasn't the first choice for the job, or even the second. But he might turn out to be exactly the man the nation needs.
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It is perhaps more to do with the nature of our times than the nature of modern football that Fabio Capello's first three choices to captain England in the World Cup, that began yesterday in South Africa, have to a greater or lesser degree made the headlines for entirely the wrong reasons.

After sacking John Terry, following the revelations of the Chelsea skipper's grubby extra-marital shenanigans, the sternly moralistic England coach turned to Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand, who in 2004 was fined £50,000 and banned from playing for eight months after failing to attend a drugs test. When Ferdinand limped out of a training session last week to be told that his World Cup was over before it had begun, Capello appointed Steven Gerrard, who has recently been the subject of some unseemly internet gossip concerning his sex life, but more categorically went on trial for affray at Liverpool Crown Court in March last year, following an incident the previous December when a disc jockey at a bar in Southport was attacked by three men. Gerrard admitted hitting the DJ but claimed it had been in self-defence. He was acquitted.

Now he must endure a more wholesome kind of trial, captaining England in a World Cup. Only eight other men have done so, and he might just be the most reluctant of them. Ahead of leading out his teammates to play the United States in this evening's opening group match, he has been making all the right noises about the honour involved, and the thrilling prospect of hoisting the coveted trophy at the end of it all. When he first accepted the captain's armband, however, Gerrard implied that he felt ambivalent about the role, not simply because his gain stemmed from Ferdinand's pain, but also because of the pressure the added responsibility would bring.

Gerrard is a man who feels his responsibilities keenly, both on and, with the occasional exception, off the pitch. As Liverpool captain he sometimes looks less like a footballer and more like a whirling dervish as he strives desperately, even manically, to lead by example. These leadership qualities were never more effective than in the 2005 European Cup final in Istanbul, when, with Liverpool losing 3-0 at half-time to AC Milan and facing utter humiliation in the highest-profile club match in the footballing calendar, Gerrard hoicked his teammates back into the match by sheer force of character, allied with considerable technical brilliance. He it was who scored early in the second half to narrow the deficit, making it 3-1. Eventually, astoundingly, Liverpool won.

Anyone who witnessed that Gerrard-inspired comeback in Istanbul could be forgiven for wondering why Capello, and his predecessors Steve McClaren and Sven Goran Eriksson, ever handed the England captaincy to anyone else. But there are times, even for Liverpool, when Gerrard burns out in the crucible of his own fierce determination and desire. At other times, his unquenchable spirit is manifest in foul and sometimes dangerous play.

Moreover, he has only rarely performed for his country as inspirationally as he habitually does for his club. One reason for this is the apparent inability of successive England coaches to solve the Gerrard-Lampard conundrum, over which the greatest football minds have laboured much as great 19th-century diplomats struggled with the Schleswig-Holstein question, which Lord Palmerston once said was so complicated that only three men understood it, one of them dead, one of them mad, and himself, and he'd forgotten it. So it sometimes seems to be with the matter of how to get Gerrard and Frank Lampard, the two outstanding English midfield players of their generation, to find the best in themselves and each other.

If Capello sorts out this problem, then it is not impossible to imagine England winning the World Cup. Of course, the demanding Italian will also need other players to excel, especially Gerrard's close friend and fellow Liverpudlian, Wayne Rooney. The talismanic Manchester United and England striker grew up loving Everton and loathing Liverpool, yet there is nobody in the national team he respects more than Gerrard, more than five years his senior, and it could be that one of the latter's most significant duties as captain will be to keep Rooney from losing his notorious temper.

Nevertheless, Gerrard would plainly prefer his impact on this great tournament to be as a player, not as a counsellor. At 30, he might still have another World Cup in him, but it surely won't be long before he enters his declining years as a footballer truly worthy of bestriding the global stage. At the moment there are few other midfielders of any nationality who can command a game as he can, see a pass like he can, and indeed score the goals that he can. The shrewd Jose Mourinho, newly appointed as manager of Real Madrid, has reportedly made Gerrard one of his first transfer targets. And it may well be that, with his beloved Liverpool in the doldrums and currently managerless, Gerrard decides to go.

If he does, he will have to set up home outside Merseyside for the first time in his eventful life. He was raised in working-class Huyton on the tough Bluebell council estate, which was developed from a Second World War internment camp and by the 1980s had not become notably more hospitable than it had been in wartime. It was in Huyton, coincidentally, that another celebrated son of Liverpool once beat up a DJ. That was John Lennon, drunk and lawless at Paul McCartney's 21st birthday party.

For the red half of the city, Gerrard – "Stevie G" – is a Scouse icon at least as revered, and sometimes as pugnacious, as Lennon. It is likely that he will remain so even if he does leave Anfield, as long as he goes to ply his trade abroad rather than with Chelsea or Manchester City, probably the only two English clubs who could afford to buy him and pay him. As with so many top footballers, but in Gerrard's case more than most, his substantial wealth now represents a startling contrast with a comparatively impoverished childhood. He lives in predictable mock-baronial splendour in the genteel environs of Formby, on the pine-wooded coast 10 miles or so north of Liverpool, with his wife Alex Curran and their young daughters.

Their wedding three years ago took place at Cliveden, the stately home in Berkshire once owned by the Astor family, and while some might grumble about the colossal salaries paid to leading footballers these days, there is something rather uplifting about a lad from one of England's more down-at-heel urban housing estates throwing an ostentatious wedding party in one of the nation's grander country estates. As if to press the point, John Terry, from a similarly humble background, tied the knot with Toni Poole in even more magnificent surroundings, at Blenheim Palace, on the same day.

For Gerrard, the unlikely road from Huyton to Cliveden started when he was nine years old, and was first noticed by Liverpool scouts. Unlike his future Liverpool and England teammate Jamie Carragher, another fanatical Evertonian as a youngster, Gerrard was already a committed Liverpool supporter. So were most of his family; indeed, his 10-year-old cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley was the youngest of the 96 Liverpool fans who lost their lives in the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy.

Gerrard was eight on the Sunday morning that his broken-hearted grandfather knocked on the door to break the dreadful news that Jon-Paul had perished in Sheffield, and the effect of that bombshell reverberates still. Gerrard's autobiography four years ago ended with the poignant words, "I play for Jon-Paul". If he ends up lifting the World Cup for Jon-Paul, Stevie G's remarkable footballing journey will be complete.

A life in brief

Born: 30 May 1980, Whiston, Merseyside.

Education: Attended Cardinal Heenan Catholic high school in West Derby, Liverpool. Received an honorary fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University in 2008 in recognition of his contribution to sport.

Family: Married Alex Curran, model and fashion journalist, in June 2007. The couple have two daughters.

Career: Made his debut for Liverpool in 1998 and two years later made the first of 80 appearances so far for the national team. Highlight of his Liverpool career was their European Champions League victory in 2005.

He says: "I have shown signs that I can do it at this level, by scoring goals and putting in decent performances. But, for me, the challenge is: can I lead a group of players all the way to the final? That is what I will be aiming to do."

They say: "An excellent player. He is a player that I would like to have in my team." Brazilian star Kaka