Football: Rio just glad of second chance

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The Independent Online
RIO FERDINAND has grown used to being compared to Bobby Moore by now. After all, he is 19.

The West Ham defender, the second youngest member of England's World Cup squad, has already endured years of being told that his assured yet delicate style is reminiscent of the fair-haired legend who used to inhabit the same Upton Park domain.

Ferdinand has the good grace to be embarrassed. "Bobby was a legend like Pele. Players like him are a one-off. I'm only at the beginning of my career and I find it hard even being put alongside someone as great as him."

For all that, as Ferdinand has worked his way up through the ranks at West Ham, something about him has always stood out as being special. It is a quality which was recognised two years ago by Glenn Hoddle's predecessor as England coach, Terry Venables, who invited the 17-year-old along to train with England's Euro 96 squad.

Two years on, Ferdinand finds himself alongside the established names in a more meaningful way. "It's unbelievable," he said.

Unbelievable it wasn't, but it did seem unlikely just nine months ago when, having been called up for the World Cup qualifier against Moldova, Ferdinand was dropped in the wake of a drink-driving charge. He had attended a party on the day before he was breathalysed, but the alcohol was still in his system and he was over the legal limit. Given the disciplinarian character of the England coach - a characteristic that has been vividly demonstrated as he has sorted through his difficulties first with Paul Gascoigne and then Teddy Sheringham - Ferdinand feared the worst after his misjudgement. "I thought to myself `I'm not going to play for England'. I didn't even think about the span of time." The incident is something over which Ferdinand is still very touchy.

Asked if he felt, in retrospect, whether it had been a good thing that his bad habit should have been brought to light and dealt with at an early stage in his career, his composure was clearly ruffled. "What do you mean `bad habit?'" He made it very clear that this had been a one-off mistake which had caused him considerable discomfort. "It was a bit of a shock when I saw the story in all the papers although I suppose I should have expected it. It was a big embarrassment - not just for myself but for my family and friends. For my little brother.

"But Glenn reassured me by saying that it wouldn't affect me in the long run if I could deal with it and carry on doing well on the pitch. He said I could come back a stronger person and that it would work in my favour, and that's what I feel has happened. Perhaps it was a good thing to learn so early in my career."

That period of self-examination marked a low point in Ferdinand's England ambitions, but he remained uncertain of his place in the World Cup squad until he was actually told by Hoddle that he was included. When Hoddle failed to name him in the starting line-up of three successive warm-up matches, Ferdinand once again questioned whether he would get to France. "When I wasn't chosen for the Belgium game I thought: `I can't be going then' but I went on as a substitute and was told I'd done reasonably well."

Well enough to get the nod from Hoddle in La Manga after he had made the lonely walk to the coach's hotel room which all 28 players had to endure.

"I thought I had half a chance," Ferdinand said. "It was 50-50. There was no beating around the bush, Glenn just said `you're in'.

"I just had a big smile on my face as he talked to me. It was only when I got back into my own room that the emotion hit me and it was `yesss!'"

He got straight on to the phone to his family and close friends. One of the first he spoke to was his club colleague Frank Lampard junior, with whom he had been due to go on holiday. Trip cancelled.

Now that Ferdinand is in his own words "champing at the bit. I'm not nervous yet," he added, fingering the diamond in his left ear, "when I get to France, that's when it will all sink in. It's the best feeling in football, you can't ask for more."

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