The waiting is almost over for Rio Ferdinand. Barring injury, a major proviso given England's present luck, he will salve a four-year itch next weekend when he takes the field for the first time in a World Cup.
He has been close to playing. Very close. As he relaxed after training yesterday he looked back to France'98 and the Felix-Bollaert Stadium in Lens. For most people, England's match against Colombia is recalled for David Beckham's free-kick, his first goal for England. Ferdinand best remembers a moment when, with England two-up and five minutes remaining, Paul Ince was injured.
"I got stripped and I was going to come on," said Ferdinand. "But Incy was saying 'I'm OK, I can get through it'. I'm thinking: 'Just come off.' He didn't and I didn't get on. I knew I wouldn't after that because all the games would be too important.
"That's been playing on my mind for four years. I've never played in a major tournament [he was left out of the squad for Euro 2000]. It'll be a big moment if I play against Sweden. I can't wait."
First Ferdinand has to negotiate tomorrow's match against Cameroon. There had been speculation that he might be rested to avoid injury but he said: "I want to play. We've not played much recently and I don't want to get rusty. Also, if I didn't play I'd be worried. Players are always scared someone might get ahead of them. I don't want to give someone the chance to hit the manager between the eyes.
"There is a risk of injury happening but you have to play your normal game. I remember when I was young and training at QPR [the teenage Ferdinand received coaching at several clubs before finally opting for West Ham]. I was thinking about a match the following day and I went into a tackle and left my leg hanging. The coach told me 'that's the way you get hurt'. I've always remembered that."
Not that Ferdinand should fear for his place, despite the form of Gareth Southgate. He has been a first choice whenever fit for Sven Goran Eriksson and the defence is the only part of the England team which appears settled. They looked solid as a unit against South Korea on Tuesday, despite it being the first time that particular combination [Danny Mills, Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole] had played together. It helped, noted Ferdinand, that Leeds and Arsenal provided the back four and goalkeeper [this was Nigel Martyn on Tuesday but it also applies to David Seaman].
The possibility of Ferdinand leaving Leeds was raised this week when it was reported that Manchester United were interested in him. The move is a plausible one, given Leeds' need to sell and Manchester's for a central defender, but the player said he was thinking only of England.
That was only partly the case four years ago in France. Ferdinand, then 19 and with just three caps to his name, knew he was there primarily for the experience and he was determined to take everything in. The different approach required this time was, he said, underlined when he began reminiscing with Teddy Sheringham and Michael Owen.
"On the way to the first match, against Tunisia in Marseilles, two of the police outriders crashed into each other. When I mentioned it to Michael and Teddy they had no idea what I was talking about. It is the same with other incidents. I must have been taking it in much more. I do remember everything clearly. I remember seeing my mates in the crowd. Now I'd rather not notice all those things but just focus on the football."
Young players are often told 'concentrate on the football and everything else will follow.' Having seen the progress of Owen and Beckham at first hand, Ferdinand knows this applies more on the World Cup stage than anywhere.
"World Cups are the places where you get known," he said. "You can see that with [the adulation] Michael and David get here. There is no better accolade than going somewhere and people are talking about you. I like to go to countries where no one knows you as a footballer and if you go somewhere like that, and someone knows you, you think 'I must be doing something right'."
But while Ferdinand wants his ability to be recognised globally, he does not seek stardom on the level of Owen or Beckham. He was given another reminder of all that can entail on Tuesday when the South Korean crowd screamed whenever Beckham's face, as he sat in the dug-out, appeared on the big screen. "I don't want all that where you can't go nowhere," snorted Ferdinand. "Michael and David handle it really well but that's a bit full-on for me."
Being a defender, Ferdinand is never likely to achieve celebrity on that scale. However, if he plays to his ability over the next month, he might find anonymity more elusive in the future.Reuse content