The passion of Rio: 'Please don't say we don't care'

England centre-back offers a defiant rebuttal of the players' image as pampered stars
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The Independent Football

When image is so important to footballers, it can work against them if the worm turns. Once results go wrong, long-suffering supporters tend to remember who is paying for the mansions, Hummers and bling, and good- natured envy becomes withering contempt. In England, lack of effort is the greatest sin and "you're not fit to wear the shirt" the most cutting insult. Abroad, they prefer: "We're going to burn your Ferraris."

A naturally laid-back style both on and off the pitch makes Rio Ferdinand more vulnerable than most to charges of not caring. This, after all, was the key player who missed Euro 2004 and Manchester United's Premiership run-in (in which they were overhauled by Arsenal) after forgetting to take a drugs test; who found his international career delayed by a ban for drink-driving; and was later dropped when even the then England coach Sven Goran Eriksson's famed patience ran out.

So say it ain't so, Rio. Tell us the tens of thousands of pounds every week do not diminish your commitment to club and, especially, country. His response is surprisingly forthright. "That makes me laugh. We're lucky that we're paid lots of money but Chelsea won the League last year, Liverpool won the European Cup two years ago, and when they're winning things, you don't hear people saying they're too rich.

"It's only when things go a bit pear-shaped that people start looking at the money, saying, 'They're pampered, they're this and that'. It's too easy an excuse and I think people use that far too often. I can only speak for Manchester United, but the manager demands the utmost in how you apply yourself on the pitch and the training ground.

"Regardless if you're on two bob or a million pounds a day, you're all treated the same and you've all got to apply yourself in the same way. If you go out there and don't produce or don't show your all for the team, you're not going to play. It's the same for England. I think it's an easy get-out for a lot of people to talk about the money; you don't hear a lot of people say that about American sportsmen on the same, if not more, than us. Name me a player who goes out and hasn't got pride and desire to do well for their country."

Diplomatically, the challenge is not taken up. Instead, another is thrown down: to provide proof that the pain of defeat still hurts enough to cut through the insulation of money and creature comforts. "Ask my missus, she will tell you it's not a good time to be around me when we lose a game, and I'm sure a lot of the players are the same. Anyone who thinks that the players don't care about playing for England or that going out of tournaments is water off a duck's back is talking out of his arse.

"We haven't got to where we are and playing for the clubs we're playing for without hard work and sacrifices and discipline to want to do well. To be successful you've got to be a bad loser in my book. I don't understand good losers myself, whether you wear an England shirt, a Man United shirt or Sunday-team shirt."

And what is the effect on "the missus" (long-time girlfriend Rebecca Ellison, the mother of his baby son) and others close to him? "I just become a recluse, don't want to talk to anyone, going out for meals gets knocked on the head. We won 4-1 against Bolton the other day but it wasn't a good night after that because we conceded a silly goal, and so losing games and coming out of tournaments is going to be even worse than that.

"In the England team, when you're round the hotel after we've lost or on the journey back from the World Cup, there isn't a good atmosphere, and that tells me that people don't like losing in this squad. The coaches don't like being around me if we lose. You see it with the clubs, you shake someone's hand but inside you're just boiling with rage. Everyone is like that in this squad and that's what will bring us to the point of being a successful side, that taste of defeat."

The worst Ferdinand has felt when beaten in an England shirt was after losing 1-0 to Northern Ireland in Belfast, a result compounded by the knowledge that his own performance had been sufficiently poor to merit being left out of the next international. Failing to defeat Andorra on Wednesday would surely be a new low, as the team who lost 5-0 at Old Trafford last autumn - when Ferdinand was injured and Wes Brown took his place - were regarded as the weakest to have taken the pitch against England in modern times.

He mercifully eschews the cliché about having no easy games in international football, while attempting a comparison with the domestic game: "We're used to cup football, playing lesser sides on paper, where you have to prepare right or come a cropper. I've been on the receiving end of a cup upset before and it's not a nice pill to swallow. The worst was probably Wrexham when I was at West Ham, they won at Upton Park, which wasn't a great start to my FA Cup career. You feel embarrassment, disappointment, all them kind of emotions in one, and it goes to an even grander scale when it happens with England. We don't need anything like that."

Ferdinand's reaction to events such as the killings of Damilola Taylor near his old estate in Peckham, and schoolmate Stephen Lawrence, suggested he may still be in slightly closer touch with reality than some of his footballing contemporaries. He understands England supporters becoming irate, but also makes a case for a little understanding himself. "In a way, fans might have the wrong impression. They pay good money and travel all over the place to watch us play so they're entitled to have their opinion, and their feelings run high. But they've got to understand that I don't just go out to take a pound note and not care about playing."