The time to judge Rio Ferdinand as an international footballer, Glenn Hoddle once suggested, would be after 15 matches at that level. The Leeds United defender now has precisely that number of caps in the cupboard – 10 starts and five appearances as a substitute – and Judgement Day is at hand, for this weekend he is expected to partner Sol Campbell in the Olympic Stadium, Munich, for the biggest game of his life.
Had Hoddle not injudiciously given the benefit of his views on reincarnation and the disabled to a newspaper reporter three years ago, it is a fair assumption that Ferdinand would by now have been closer to 30 caps than 15. The former England manager had always wanted a ball-playing sweeper for the national team and after reluctantly abandoning the idea of having an established midfielder in his own image filling that role – Jamie Redknapp was tried in a B international with disappointing results (and result) – he settled on Ferdinand as the long-term answer, taking him to the 1998 World Cup as a 19-year-old for the experience and establishing him in the side the following season.
It was to be Hoddle's last: his successor Kevin Keegan, settling for four at the back, picked Ferdinand to be among them in only one of his 18 games in charge. Keegan was not alone in believing that the West Ham youngster, for all his ability on the ball and capacity for stepping up into midfield, might be suspect defensively. There were embarrassing escapades off the field as well, like a drink-driving conviction in the very week of Princess Diana's death (Hoddle dropped him from the squad for the match against Moldova) and a holiday prank involving two other players, a video camera and a young lady who subsequently told a tabloid newspaper all about it.
Proud as he is of his Peckham roots (he has worked hard for the trust set up in memory of the murdered youngster Damilola Taylor, who lived on the estate Ferdinand was brought up on), a move far away from his London haunts has proved immensely beneficial, offering greater personal responsibility as well as the opportunity to play European football on a regular basis.
"I've always had expectations myself to achieve things and that's not changed,'' he said yesterday. "Moving to Leeds and playing Champions' League football has put me in with more of a chance of getting in the England team, though I still come into the squad thinking I've got to prove myself. Playing big games against the best players definitely brings you on. Probably my biggest game so far was the Champions' League semi-final last season, but this outshines that by quite a way. I don't really go into games feeling nervous but you can feel the enthusiasm when you're walking down the street and hear people say 'Make sure you beat the Germans'."
Oddly, Ferdinand, 23 next month, has never played against German opposition at any level that he can recall, though as an avid consumer of football on satellite television, he has studied their game carefully and regarded Mathias Sammer, the red-haired sweeper, as an early hero.
Like anyone brought up at Upton Park, he is well aware of how, in Alf Garnett's words "West Ham won the World Cup'' 35 years ago. Other England-Germany matches have registered with him variously as a young fan ("I remember the 1990 World Cup, and missing those penalties''): as a 17-year-old who had been allowed to train with the Euro 96 squad (Glenn Roeder, the current West Ham manager, still recalls the confidence with which the young duckling took to the international water on that occasion); then as a disappointed professional cast aside by Keegan and forced to watch the Euro 2000 victory in Charleroi while on his holidays.
"When the new manager [Sven Goran Eriksson] came in, things were looking quite bleak,'' Ferdinand said. On a personal level, they immediately brightened with Peter Taylor and then Eriksson picking him to start every subsequent game until a hamstring injury kept him out of the recent defeat by the Netherlands – an excellent game to miss.
"The injury wasn't that serious and my main concern was being fit for Leeds' first game of the season, but I'd be lying if I said the Germany game wasn't at the back of my mind.'' If Munich turns into an occasion for battlers rather than ball players, he will be ready.
"They've always been great games with a lot of spice,'' he said. "But having never played against Germany, there's no psychological barrier of any sort for me. At this stage of the tournament, the performance goes out of the window as long as we win. If we win the game by playing badly, I don't think too many people will argue.'' And so to Judgement Day.Reuse content