It had been a long wait – 103 days to be precise – but only last Wednesday, amid the lofty splendour of the Austrian Alps, did Rio Ferdinand finally hear Fabio Capello deliver to England's players the words he has been waiting for since John Terry's brutal 12-minute audience with the manager at Wembley back in February: "Rio is captain".
Anointing a leader just 23 days before a World Cup tournament begins is hardly the England way and not something Bobby Moore, with whose legend Ferdinand grew up at West Ham after signing on there as a 15-year-old, had to contend with.
But it is all of a piece with the uncertain place Ferdinand has found himself in, in recent months. When he learned that Terry had been stripped of the captaincy – via a TV news bulletin – it was early February and he was in the depths of a four-month period in which he appeared only four times in a Manchester United shirt. Capello didn't even name Ferdinand on the day of Terry's dismissal – his frustratingly cryptic statement asserting that "when I chose John Terry as captain, I also selected a vice-captain and also named a third choice."
The Italian's low-key approach to the captaincy is a product not only of his relative indifference to who takes the armband – matchwinners like Marco van Basten and Marcel Desailly mattered far more to him in his wonderful days at Milan than his captains – but of the profound uncertainty about whether a back injury which limited Ferdinand to 12 Premier League starts last season would allow him to participate in his fourth World Cup at all.
Capello's words at last week's Irdning high altitude training camp contribute to a sense that the 31-year-old will make it – "the manager said it in front of the lads; he told the lads I was the new captain and that was nice," Ferdinand said. Notwithstanding, the central defender now finds himself hoping the reassurances he has received from a practitioner of a comparatively new form of treatment, prolotherapy, which involves injecting a solution into the ligaments to stiffen and strengthen tissues, prove accurate.
Ferdinand is still coming to grips with the basics of a treatment also known sclerosant therapy ("It's called... something beginning with 's'.") and which is not widely used on elite sportsmen. It seems telling that he has put himself under the care of one of its leading practitioners, Dr Simon Petrides, director of the Blackberry clinic at Milton Keynes, who professes his greatest satisfaction to be "treating patients who perceive us as the last resort."
"When I first went to see the specialist he gave me different variables of what might happen if I did certain different treatments but then he said 'for you we will do this, and there is no fear of any future problems'," said Ferdinand, who underwent a six-week course of weekly injections before Christmas.
"I wasn't able to move as freely as I had been in the past. My spine was too loose; there was no stability in it. Then I had injections in my spine in the ligaments and I felt a relief almost immediately. I'm not scared of needles as such but there was a lot of biting on pillows."
The process is complicated by the fact that the ligaments can become set in the wrong position. "You have to train when you are having it done," Ferdinand added. "I never stopped training because they say if you stop training for too long you obviously get set in one position. You have to do your training to make sure that your spine heals the right way. They told me to expect a re-direction of some of the nerve pain to different areas."
Capello was certainly concerned enough to require a long conversation about Ferdinand's state of health with Sir Alex Ferguson the day before announcing his 30-man squad. But the defender clearly feels he has found the answer with Dr Petrides – "he said to me to expect a couple of deferred problems along the way but they'll be minor" – and his team-mate Nemanja Vidic's renewed form and fitness after placing himself under the same medic should be a source of comfort to those who long to see Ferdinand and Terry together in Rustenburg against the United States on 12 June.
Ferdinand's World Cup story has not always been the happiest – Paul Ince infuriated him 12 years ago by pretending to be injured at the end of a game at the finals in France but then, having seen Ferdinand stripped off for action, decided he was fine – and he confesses he is still not allowing himself to imagine being England captain in a finals. "I have always said I wouldn't let myself get too emotionally involved with situations and scenarios in fear that it might not happen or I might not achieve the goals I set out to achieve," he said. "I am not letting myself think what it would be like to be at the World Cup and be captain. Until I put the armband on I won't have the feeling of enjoyment."
Ferdinand regrets that Paul Scholes, the subject of another 11th-hour telephone call to north-west England, will not be with the England contingent, despite sticking in his own oar in to help Capello's efforts at persuasion. "I spoke to him, yeah, but Scholesy is just a very black-and-white character – no frills, no messing about. I would have paid him to come. That's no detriment to any of the others players who are here, but I think he would have added to the squad. But it's not to be. You don't cry over spilt milk."
Generally, he discerns a far different approach than four years ago. "I think it's more focused about doing well and it's more about doing what the manager asks. It's not about what we're going to be doing, who we're going to beat and where we're going to get in the tournament," he said. "It's about if we get the manager's ideas right and put it onto the pitch, then we'll have a chance of doing really well. I just think everyone could see the errors [last time]. I don't think in this squad there will be any room for distraction."
Of course, Ferdinand knows all about that kind of single-minded management at Old Trafford. Speaking of which, did Ferguson wish him luck as he set off on his way? "He did, yes." And did Ferguson say 'come back with the trophy?'
"He didn't go that far, no." Realists abound in Ferdinand's life, which is another reason why Capello's words will only translate for real when he is calling a coin toss with US captain Carlos Bocanegra 19 days from now.Reuse content