Rio on the road to redemption

Remodelled Ferdinand insists England have shed their inferiority complex and are equipped to atone for that Brazil débâcle
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England's retreat from the Shizuoka stadium after being knocked out of the last World Cup by Brazil was a wearisome one, and Rio Ferdinand took longer than most. Even David Seaman, dissolving into tears as he tried to stutter apologies for the howler that permitted the favourites' winning goal, was on his way to the team bus before Ferdinand, who had been selected for a random drugs test.

No, he did not forget to attend; there was little chance of that. Instead he sat with two of his conquerors for half an hour, waiting for dehydration to wear off and Mother Nature to resume normal working order, vowing that next time would be different.

There is some way to go yet. Germany, the host country at next month's finals, and Argentina - to name but two - might have the opportunity to send Sven Goran Eriksson's squad packing before the world champions samba into sight, casting their giant technicolour shadow. But if they do, Ferdinand swears that he and his mates will be ready, in better condition and all the wiser for the events of four years ago.

"I know what this team's capable of because I train with them every day," he said in a long, stirring interview at the squad's temporary camp on the Algarve last week. "We've got more seasoned players who've played in big games for two or three seasons, which will put us in good stead for this tournament.

"We have a better chance this time because the players are more confident, at prime age, with a bit more experience. Maybe back then we played against Brazil and saw ourselves as being a little bit inferior, subconsciously, whereas now we go on the pitch with any team in the world believing we're out there to win."

The folks back home had briefly enjoyed that feeling when Michael Owen put England ahead in Japan, but conceding an equaliser to Rivaldo just before half-time, and then watching Ronaldinho's speculative free-kick arch tantalisingly over Seaman's head drained morale, further depleted by the failure to make any sort of impression on 10 men after Ronaldinho had been sent off.

"That was the worst," Ferdinand recalled. "Then I had to do the drugs test with Ronaldinho and Cafu. They probably weren't being smug but it just felt like it. It was about half an hour that felt like a couple of days. I kept asking Ronaldinho, did he mean that goal or not and he just shrugged. I think if we'd got to half-time at 1-0 we'd have won the game. We were a bit naïve in some respects, a bit gung-ho. We scored the goal and thought 'We can go on and win this even more' and we blew ourselves out in the first half.

"It probably took me the whole summer to get over it. Everyone says 'unlucky, unlucky' but that's the last thing you want to hear. But it's gone now and we're looking to the future. It would be a great scenario to beat Brazil in the final, though to win the World Cup I'd play against anyone. But I think you're gonna have to beat Brazil to win it."

The consolations for Ferdinand, only 23 at the time, were to be named in Fifa's team of the tournament and earn a £29.3m transfer from Leeds to Manchester United. He seemed to have outgrown the immaturity evident in an occasionally wild life-style that had led to a drink-driving ban five years earlier, delaying his international debut.

So it was hardly conceivable that grown-up Rio would miss the next major international tournament, Euro 2004, as part of an eight-month ban for forgetting a drugs test when procedures at United's training ground turned out to be laughably laxer than in Shizuoka.

"I don't think you can put into words how much you miss a tournament like that," he now says. "It's like a big chunk out of your career. Sometimes I hear people talking about what happened at the European Championship and I can't get involved because I don't know what they're talking about. That's always a little reminder of what happened. Obviously I missed the Premier League as well, and maybe that could have been another title we could have won."

He has described the whole ghastly episode as "a wake-up call", a second one to follow the drink-driving. But last autumn the alarm clock was required again, this time for purely footballing reasons. Poor in England's defeat by Northern Ireland (and hardly alone in that), he was worse in a high-profile game for United at Fulham and found Eriksson for once displaying a ruthless streak in leaving him out of the next international, against Austria.

Fate was kinder, an injury to Sol Campbell forcing Ferdinand's return as a substitute, which he grasped with new resolve. "You don't want to be dropped by anybody, let alone the England manager, and being told something like that is devastating. That hit home. I knew what I had to do, to play well and get my form back with United, and I managed to do that. I had a bad run for a couple of games but by the end of the season I was comfortable with the way I was playing."

What he will never shrug off for unsympathetic critics, inside and outside the game, is an impression of being just too comfortable, of possessing a cigar-and-armchair style of football that, say, Bobby Moore managed to pull off but few have emulated. It is an approach, some believe, which equally defines his life off the field and has inevitably led to trouble.

"I've seen people write or say that I don't care," he acknowledges. "It's just natural, the way I play, and I can't change that. Even when I was a lot younger, people would say I was too easy on the ball. What I have had to change is if we win 3-1 now, it will ruin my weekend thinking 'could I have done better with the goal?'. You ask any coaches here or at United, I'm the biggest moaner in the world."

Whatever happens this summer, it has been a memorable season for the Ferdinand family, with Rio's usual dramas and now younger brother Anton's elevation to Premiership status; almost, tantalisingly, an FA Cup winner's medal too, before becoming the fall-guy who missed the decisive penalty. Big brother, essentially still a West Ham supporter though he can hardly admit it, watched enthralled as his old club went within a minute or two of lifting the Cup.

That they should be denied by the genius of an England colleague brought mixed emotions to Ferdinand Snr. "I was torn in both directions. As a football fan it was an unbelievable spectacle for an FA Cup final, all the emotion and ups and downs. For my brother and myself and West Ham it was so disappointing at the end. But to see someone like Steven Gerrard performing like he did and pull a result out... if he can bring that into England, that'll be fantastic."

And as every successive tournament goes by, the chance exists for a group of Englishmen to become the new national heroes and take their place alongside the boys of '66. "Envious, I'm envious of them," Ferdinand admits. "Not of the treatment they get, just that they've got that medal, and that those pictures are there for life. They can say they won the World Cup. We can't, so we're looking up to people like that and would like to be walking alongside them. You want to be part of something that will go down in history. It's been a long time [since 1966] but as a player you put yourself under pressure anyway.

"Anyone who goes on to the pitch in England kit doesn't want to come off losing the game. We want to come out of the tournament with a winner's medal. This time we've booked the hotel for the duration."

Ferdinand file: From Shizuoka to Frankfurt

JUNE 2002: Concedes one goal at centre of England's defence at World Cup in Japan and South Korea, before losing 2-1 to Brazil in quarter-final. Scores firstinternational goal in 3-0 win over Denmark in second round. Named in Fifa's team of the tournament.

17 JULY 2002: Amid speculation over his future, hands in transfer request to new Leeds manager Terry Venables, who says he wants to keep the player. Four days later, Leeds agree British record fee of £29.3m with Manchester United.

MAY 2003: Ferdinand and Manchester United win Premiership title.

6 OCT 2003: Reported to Football Association for failing to attend a drugs test and faces maximum two-year ban. Next day, omitted from England squad for crucial Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey.

29 OCT 2003: Charged with misconduct by the FA for "failure or refusal by a player to submit to drug testing as required by a competent official".

19 DEC 2003: Independent three-man panel impose eight-month ban and £50,000 fine on Ferdinand (left). Manchester United say they will appeal against "savage and unprecedented" ruling.

16 JAN 2004: Ferdinand announces he will appeal, but decides to start serving ban on 20 January.

18 MARCH 2004: Appeal rejected.

20 SEPT 2004: Returns to action in 2-1 Premiership defeat of Liverpool.

3 JULY 2005: United chief executive David Gill defends Ferdinand after he fails to sign £100,000-a-week extension to his contract despite demands from Sir Alex Ferguson that he commits his future to club.

8 AUG 2005: After being booed by United fans in pre-season games, agrees new four-year deal at club.

8 OCT 2005: Left on the bench for World Cup qualifier against Austria after defeat to Northern Ireland.

10 JUNE 2006: TV programme by Ferdinand's production company Next Generation before England's first World Cup game; plays practical jokes on England pals. Formed fashion label and record company.

Andrew Tong