For his next trick, Joe will show he's a team player

Exclusive Interview: Eriksson ready to invest the hopes of England in a precocious talent who is desperate to make a world of difference on the biggest stage
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For someone whose World Cup place is supposed to be in the balance, Joe Cole appears strangely relaxed. Either that or he knows something we do not. He would never say, of course, but you sense he already knows that his month of June will include the odd plate of sushi.

The traditional pre-tournament speculation about which players might or might not make the final squad of 23 should not be a cause for concern in Cole's case. Sven Goran Eriksson may have been caricatured as someone who likes to keep his cards close to his chest, but the England manager has, in fact, left a trail of evidence in his wake.

Eriksson has never changed his views on Cole. No sooner had the Swede settled in at Soho Square than he had identified the young West Ham United midfielder as a special talent. It was no coincidence, for example, that he chose to visit Upton Park on his first weekend in charge 14 months ago. It also says everything that, when fit, Cole has never been omitted from an England squad under the new regime. Cole is, and always has been, part of Eriksson's plans.

The player himself is naturally anxious not to present his inclusion in the World Cup party as a fait accompli, but even he had to admit that he has kept his summer schedule clear. "World Cups are what it's all about," Cole told me in his first interview for over a year. "To be honest, I feel I've got something to offer England which nobody else in the country has. I know I can do it and it would mean the world to me if I could go. These tournaments are very special – they can make a player."

The most famous World Cup creation of recent times is the man most often associated with Cole, Paul Gascoigne. It was at Italia 90 that the young Geordie captured the hearts of the nation, including that of an eight-year-old boy on a Camden Town estate. "It was during that World Cup that I really fell in love with the game," Cole said. "It was the first time I sat down and watched football properly. Suddenly, I understood what all the fuss was about. That World Cup with Gazza was a beautiful story. The England team gradually did better and better, and the players made you want to be part of their dream.

"Gazza, in particular, caught my imagination. Obviously, his talent was amazing but it was more than that. This was a lad from a council estate, like a lot of us, who came within minutes of ruling the world. As it is, he became our hero because he cried and played so brilliantly, but if he'd won the World Cup I think he would have been immortalised. I just remember seeing that and thinking: 'I want a chance to be involved in all this one day'."

Cole will know his fate on 24 May, when Eriksson names his World Cup squad, but the feeling is that he has done enough in recent games to warrant a seat on the plane to Japan and South Korea. "I thought I did OK against Italy even though I lost possession before they scored their second goal, and I would say I played well against Paraguay," said Cole, who coped much better than Kieron Dyer with the job of patrolling the left side of midfield. "I've played in every position for West Ham this season: right midfield, left midfield, central midfield, defensive midfield. I've done them all, so I feel quite comfortable with my versatility."

He added: "Every time I play for England I learn more and more. That's the best thing about being surrounded by great players – you can't help but improve. Of course, I hope the manager thinks I'm good enough, but it's not the end of the world if I don't go to the World Cup. I'm two or three years ahead of my time, so I'll have plenty of other opportunities to shine on the big stage. Whatever happens, this is not going to be the end of my England career."

Cole shows remarkable maturity for a player who, ever since he burst on to the scene as a precocious teenager three years ago, has been touted as the best English hope in a generation. Lavish, probably overstated, comparisons with Gazza, Maradona or even Pele have some- how never affected the 20-year-old. Instead, he has kept his head down and tried to let his feet do all the talking. The ploy seems to have worked.

Whereas Cole was a bit-part supersub in his first two senior seasons, he has now become an integral part of West Ham's young and dynamic team. He has played on 31 occasions for the Hammers this season, proving that he is mature enough both physically and mentally to assume his responsibilities. "I've definitely grown up," he said. "I was a young lad in the last couple of seasons, but now that I've got a bit of experience you're going to start seeing a lot of changes over the next few seasons. I'm going to find out a lot more about the game. Realistically, it's going to be six or seven years before I hit my peak. That gives you some idea of where I am now." Not to mention where Cole might end up.

Cole was actually a relatively late starter. His stepfather (who Cole has always considered his dad because his real father left him and his mother when he was a few months old) was never interested in football. The young Joe played on the council estate where he grew up in north London but did not join a club until he was 11.

"Football sort of turned up and bit me on the bum," he said. Once it did, though, there was never any doubt he would make the grade. "It was obvious he was a very special talent from the start," said the former West Ham manager Harry Redknapp, who gave Cole his first professional contract. "Some of the tricks he did with a ball were amazing – we'd never seen anything like it. He would flick the ball over his own head, then a defender's, and run on to it. And he was doing all this in ankle-deep mud and he was a foot shorter than everyone else. He had absolutely everything: skill on the ball, tackling ability, heading strength, enthusiasm and a great football brain. There was no point in trying to harness him, you just had to let him get on with it."

Cole will forever be grateful to Redknapp for believing in him at a young age, but it is West Ham's current manager who the prodigy singles out as the main reason for his recent development. "I can't speak more highly of Glenn [Roeder]," Cole remarked. "He's been a massive influence on me and the way I play the game. The main advantage is that I've been given a role to do in the team. It's nice to be told exactly what's expected of you at the start of a match. At my age, you need a minimum of guidance. Those who questioned Glenn's ability at the beginning of the season didn't know what they were talking about. The truth is that he knows his football inside out. He's got a love for the game.

"He's very similar to Kevin Keegan, who first brought me into the England set-up and showed faith in me at a higher level. When you're being taught by men like them, or senior players such as Stuart Pearce or Ian Wright, it makes you want to learn and be a part of what is being built. I think it's the same with England at the moment. Mr Eriksson is putting together a winning team and, like Glenn, he is someone who is calm yet passionate about the sport. Under those circumstances, you can't help but want to serve those types of enthusiast."

Indeed, Cole is said to be a joy to work with. Forget the likes of Liverpool's Nicolas Anelka – there are no airs and graces about this young star in the making. "I'm enjoying learning, to be honest," he said. "Football is a great game to play. It's never boring. You never know what's going to happen in the next five minutes, let alone the next five days. It's so unpredictable, you can't help but be enthralled. Even in games like the one against Arsenal on Wednesday [when West Ham lost 2-0 in a close-fought contest], which was a very different type of match because I had to do a lot of running around and didn't see much of the ball, I still enjoyed myself.

"I loved the fact that I was facing Patrick Vieira, for example. He's easily the best player I've seen all season. He's such a colossus that it's great to pit your wits against him. That's why I'm completely in love with football."

By the same token, Cole's effervescence and talent explain why football has so obviously fallen in love with him.