Even now, Sol Campbell still wonders how he fits in to football, which roles he can take and whether the game is quite as open to him as it might be.
It has been very clear ever since the publication of Campbell’s new biography just how much the issue of the England captaincy – which he says was “passed around” him – does rankle. But his relationship with football – not so much the game as the culture, and the world – is still slightly awkward.
As he explains when we meet at a West London coffee shop near his home late last week, he is still interested in leadership positions within the game and sensitive that they might not be open to him.
The captaincy issue is not just rooted in the autumn of 2000, when Campbell was injured and David Beckham was chosen ahead of him, but future matches when even Michael Owen was chosen – as for a qualifier in Azerbaijan in 2004 – rather than Campbell. Sven Goran Eriksson had nominally made Campbell vice-captain but then did little to acknowledge it.
Campbell has spoken persuasively about the importance of race in this issue but he says it comes down to a broader question: what sort of player do we want as a captain, and which qualities should he embody?
For instruction, Campbell looks abroad. “It’s all about the game,” he says. “Look at France and Didier Deschamps; he was just a guy who just did his job but he was captain of one of France’s most successful teams. Then you’ve got Iker Casillas; he’s not into PR or things like that, but he’s one of the most successful captains of Spain. Or Michael Ballack. Or Philipp Lahm. These guys are not PR machines, they’re just people doing proper jobs.”
The implication is clear. Campbell believes he belongs on that list – and that had English football been less in thrall to celebrity, he would have been.
“If you work hard and tick the boxes you should have a chance of making it, not get stopped by PR,” he says. “I was one of the youngest captains for Tottenham. But when you look at [the captaincy of] the national team, it is almost the face of England. Maybe it does not sit perfectly with everyone.”
Others were chosen ahead of him. “Michael Owen didn’t even captain any of his [club] sides. I did. Even Beckham didn’t really, until he got to LA Galaxy.”
So was the choice of Beckham, first made by Peter Tayor – in Campbell’s absence – in November 2000, then re-affirmed by Eriksson, owed to his celebrity status? “For the FA, he ticked a lot of boxes,” says Campbell, not willing to dispel the suggestion entirely. “He ticked a lot of boxes for the media.”
Ultimately, though, Campbell’s dispute is not with Beckham. “David did a great a job. But I am talking about my experience.”
The difference between Campbell and Beckham is instructive, as is Campbell’s distant relationship from the celebrity intensity of modern football. Campbell acknowledges that he was “misunderstood in the football world”, which, among other reasons, is why he chose to tell his story through his book.
Clearly, he felt at odds with many of his former colleagues, and the lack of thoughtfulness he perceived in many of them. “Some players can just act like ‘whatever’ off the field and then play amazing. Not many, but some. I just wasn’t wired like that.”
Campbell found Arsenal different. “A lot of players were very open-minded and wanted to see the world and travel, and looked at football in a totally different way. That is why I felt totally comfortable there.”
But not all teams are like that and Campbell would rather football become more accommodating to characters like him, in a way that other sports have. “Football is the last one. Tennis, cricket, rugby [have]... I don’t understand it. It is the last sport with this kind of hindrance on it. It is getting better, for sure, but it is still there, a lot of it.
“When someone intelligent comes around, and looks at life around football in a different way, it can be alien. It definitely was 10 years ago.”
That is why, at 39, Campbell’s future is unclear. He would like a future in the game but is not wholly dedicated to it. Since retirement he has devoted a lot of his time to his wife’s furniture company. He is currently in Los Angeles on the firm’s behalf, and he has been to Milan too.
He is, however, finishing his Uefa A licence, working with the Welsh FA. He will start work towards his Pro Licence this summer. He did approach the English Football Association two years ago about working with it, but heard nothing back.
“I wanted to work with them on something. I went to them cap in hand, I went begging. I wanted to work with them in any capacity. I had meetings with Adrian Bevington [the FA’s managing director], but after two or three weeks of radio silence they announced Gary Neville had got that job with the FA. I’d like to know why. I’d love to know why there is nothing there for me.”
That experience has not turned Campbell off coaching, but it is one of a number of options for him. “The main thing is to have strings to your bow. You get your badges, you see where life is, and then you see what things come your way, if any.”
It is well documented how few opportunities there are for black managers in England. Chris Hughton, hanging on to his job at Norwich City, is the one black manager in the English game. Not everyone will agree with Campbell about the England captaincy but this is an issue with deep roots. “I think people in this country think black players are not intelligent,” explains Campbell. “In how to manage a club or manage finance. They are saying, ‘I’ve got more chance of going down with a black manager.’ But [white] guys are taking teams down all the time and getting jobs.”
With a curious eye on events abroad, Campbell retains some hope. “Maybe they think black players are not intelligent enough to handle all the levels of a football club. It’s like American football. At one stage they thought black quarterbacks could not exist. And now they’re actually winning Super Bowls.”
Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography by Simon Astaire is out now, published by Spellbinding Media