Sol: 'I'm happier, I'm more alive'

Campbell's desire is still burning within - he wants to do something special for his country
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The Independent Football

Early April in Turin, and Arsenal have just eliminated Juventus in a Champions' League quarter-final. On the long walkway from the dressing rooms to the team bus Sol Campbell, an unused substitute, is talking for the first time about a traumatic couple of months since walking out on his team-mates during a home defeat by West Ham, and the possible effect on his World Cup prospects. Although affecting an optimistic air, he admits to needing matches and speaks darkly of "people who have their own hidden agendas, who want to play their games", and of "continual lies and talking crap".

Seven weeks on, the mood has lightened. Red-top interest in what passes these days for a footballer's private life seems to have diminished; Arsenal have come close to becoming champions of Europe, Campbell heading an excellent goal in the final; and, granted the desired time on the grass, he has avoided further injury and earned his place in the England squad for a sixth successive tournament.

Unsurprising, then, that a weight appears to have been removed from those broad shoulders. "I'm happy, I'm happy. The five games I had with Arsenal helped, big time. I needed those 90-minuters under my belt so it's good. I had three in about six days, the batch of them one after the other, we had to get nine points and they were pressure games. Plus a semi-final and final. The last game against Barcelona, it was a shame we couldn't win it, but it was fantastic for me because everything started to come together. If I didn't have those games, I'd be nowhere near."

Another solid 90 minutes for England B against Belarus on Thursday, wearing the captain's armband for the final half-hour, suggested he has probably eased ahead of Jamie Carragher again as the first-choice understudy to Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, who are clearly Sven Goran Eriksson's preferred central- defensive partnership. For a World Cup qualifying tie with Austria back in the autumn, Campbell even displaced an out-of-sorts Ferdinand, who needed one of his periodic kicks up the rear end. But in an episode that would foreshadow his season, he pulled an hamstring an hour into the game and has not added to his 66 caps since.

Niggling injuries, as much as nagging personal problems, were a worry at the time of the West Ham game on 1 February, when Campbell, at fault for two first-half goals, declined to continue beyond the interval.

Although still refusing to discuss specifics, he says of that troubled time: "There were a lot of things which happened which were out of my control. There were a couple of footballing things. But Sven rang me and came to training and there were a lot of good people around me."

No question, he insists, that having walked away, he would not return. "Any proper guy, any man, would do that. I wasn't gonna lose my hunger. My injuries were just getting on my nerves. Just niggly and wouldn't go away. But now a lot of things have been sorted out and I'm much happier, much better, more alive."

As is often the way, one man's frustration became another's instead, Philippe Senderos picking up an injury against Tottenham which cost the young Swiss defender a place in that pressured run-in and, ultimately, in the Champions' League final. As Campbell admits: "In another situation I don't think I'd have got all those games. I kept steady and patient and waited my time. It opened up and I just took it."

At 31, he is long enough in the tooth to know that is how sport works: accept your disappointments, bide your time, do your job, take your chance. "You take it on the chin like I've taken a lot of things. It's a squad, and as long as I'm sharp and ready for whatever comes my way, that's the best I can do. If I play I play, whatever the manager wants. It's a squad game. If I don't play, so be it. It's a long, long tournament. Games come thick and fast and a lot of things can happen. There can be a couple of injuries, and you've got to be ready."

Starting on the touchline rather than the pitch would take Campbell back to his first tournament. 1996 and all that: Wembley, "Football's coming home", Terry Venables, Gazza and Ted. Given a debut against Hungary only three weeks earlier, Campbell was unable to displace Tony Adams and Gareth Southgate but appeared as a substitute in the second European Championship game, against Scotland. In the four subsequent tournaments, remarkably, he has not missed a minute of England's 16 matches.

Stressing the importance of squad unity only makes the West Ham walkout all the more inexplicable: "I haven't got time for mucking around. I'm intelligent enough to say that if I'm not playing, I'm gonna be with the team. That's how you win tournaments. You can't be bickering. You've got to have that kind of unity where if someone's playing you're happy for them. I'm part of the squad with a great team and the possibility of winning it, which is what I wanted. Whatever comes my way I want to be sharp, so I'm gonna give as much of myself to England as possible because the World Cup is the biggest prize in football. There's a lot of good countries out there but the lads think this is one of our best chances. So of course I want to be a part of it."

There has been much debate recently about what next season might hold. Campbell insists he is not joining Fenerbahce in Turkey, but will sit down with Arsenal officials for discussions after the World Cup. For now, that is all that matters, and he is approaching it in a healthier state of mind than seemed likely on that night of introspection in Turin.

"I kept faith in myself. I'm much happier with my play. I've been through a lot of crap over the years ever since I started playing for England and I've kept on coming back, because I've got something inside that keeps on saying to me I want to win something. Regardless of what anybody says, I want to do something special for the country."

B Plus, B Minus: Who passed the test for Germany and who didn't

B PLUS: LENNON AND WALCOTT

Like all good wingers, Lennon has pace and the ability to beat a defender and put a cross in. Young Theo had a quiet introduction - just what he needed.

COLE AND CAMPBELL

Arsenal pair need matches after recent recovery from injuries and both will be better for a full 90 minutes. Campbell shook up a couple of opponents with his tackling; Cole broke forward well.

MICHAEL OWEN

Owen is also getting there and might even be fresher than some. Assist for England's goala reminder that Peter Crouch is not the only one who can head the ball.

B MINUS: LOSING MATCH

Belarus may have been closer to an A than a B team, but a defeat is a defeat and always brings with it a certain negativity. This one adds to the pressure for two good wins over Hungary and Jamaica.

LOSING GOALKEEPER

Although third-choice keepers are the least likely squad players to take any part in a tournament, Robert Green needed the experience of being there. Aged 26 and with only one cap, he may now find Scott Carson usurping him.

LOSING PLOT Calling up Michael Dawson (a centre-back) when Luke Young (a full-back) dropped out meant that Owen Hargreaves had to play out of position at right-back. Instead of moving him into midfield later, Jamie Carragher, the best reserve full-back, was switched there.

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