Inside the mind of Sol Campbell

In a sport with a famously low tolerance for individualism, Sol Campbell has always been something of an enigma. One of the most talented and mercurial players in British football for the past 14 years, he had the world at his feet. But the pressures of fame, wealth – and public scrutiny – have often proved too much. Now, thwarted in his ambition to move to a big-money Continental club, is the game up at last?

It's been a troubled summer for English football. The World Cup threw up one painful moment after another, culminating in Wayne Rooney's calamitous sending-off, David Beckham's tears, and the grim departure of manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.

But as chastening experiences go, none is comparable to the ongoing saga that is the life of Sol Campbell. The once-mighty defender, for so long a paragon of professionalism in the money-saturated world of Premiership football, has torn himself apart. In Campbell's private life, a high-power relationship has ended in the most public of spats; while on the pitch, his form has dipped so markedly that he has dropped out of the highest echelons of world football probably for good. For so long the colossus at the heart of his country's – and his clubs' defences – his strength as a player could only mask a personal vulnerability for so long. Is it about to be exposed once again?

Campbell's five-year association with Arsenal ended last month after a season during which he literally walked out of the game. He returned, but it didn't last. At 31, his next move was supposed to be abroad. But all of a sudden he has pitched up at Portsmouth, very much one of the lesser Premiership lights, and with a big question mark hanging over him. Can he get it together?

In football, ambition is often derided if it goes beyond what can be achieved on the pitch and maybe Campbell has tried to spread his wings too far. Perhaps he is just perennially restless, ill at ease with the man he has become and the environment within which he operates.

Not many players, coaches or managers pretend to know Campbell because few do. Football is a sport in which individualism is left at the dressing room door, and Campbell has never been comfortable in a culture of superficial humour and banter. He has always needed space, and he has tried to remain contained within it. It's something that goes back to his childhood and forward to the crisis that led to the end of his Arsenal career.

But there are many conflicts. Here is a man who has made no secret of his desire to go into acting – although he has talked less often about it in recent months – and who is said to be considering launching a range of luxury goods called "Body & Sol". He is also developing interests in the environment, design and fashion, often flying to Milan, entering a world which famously led to a 10-month relationship with the interior designer Kelly Hoppen. Campbell's attendance has been noted at a host of celebrity parties, he has been linked to the singer Dido and the tennis player Martina Hingis, and relaxed on many a millionaire's yacht. He has, by any standards, a complicated private life. Despite being involved with a string of often independently wealthy, high-achieving women (albeit briefly), Campbell has faced constant, unfounded allegations about his sexuality.

He also does not speak as a footballer. "I like to be a tiger roaming the jungle or an eagle soaring the skies," he has said, which is a distinctly different flavour of quote from those that football writers are used to scribbling down. "Just being me with no worries," Campbell expanded. "People like to put people in little boxes and if you don't fit you're odd. But they don't really know anything about me." And therein lies the clash between his celebrity ambitions – and his private needs.

This combination of forces has bred suspicion, rumour and innuendo. And yet this is a sportsman, 32 next month, whose achievements are as imposing as his impressive 6ft 2in physique. He has 69 caps for his country as a central defender and played every minute of every game in four successive international tournaments for England.

Campbell also became the first player from these shores to be selected in the "best XI" for three of those competitions – the 1998 and 2002 World Cup and the European Championships in 2004. He was one of the best, if not – for a while – the best, in his position in the world and would have been elevated to hero status had "goals" against Argentina in 1998 and Portugal two years ago not been disallowed. He has accrued titles, cups, honours and vast wealth – estimated at £20m – playing for Arsenal, England's most stylish team. Only last year he was hailed as its "spine" by manager Arsène Wenger. Campbell should be lionised. Instead he has been ridiculed, mocked and, in some quarters, loathed.

But then Campbell has two other extraordinary achievements in his football career (the second of which, his amazing half-time walkout against West Ham United last season, will be dealt with later). He made his professional debut in 1992 for Tottenham Hotspur, playing as a makeshift striker, and scoring against Chelsea. It couldn't have been sweeter for Spurs fans unless the goal had come against their hated, closest neighbours, Arsenal.

And it couldn't have been worse for them when, nine years later, Campbell, by then captain and talisman, became the first high-profile Premiership player to take advantage of the new freedom of contract rules, following the Bosman case, to move clubs. He chose to go to Arsenal, without a transfer fee being paid, and did so after turning down Spurs' desperate pleas to keep him. They complained, and it wasn't the last time the complaint was made against Campbell, that they simply couldn't get through to him. He wouldn't listen – didn't want to – and stood steadfastly behind the claim that he had the right to determine his future. Which he did.

But it is hard to overestimate the rancour he faced. Campbell was condemned as a Judas. The pressure was intolerable. When he chose to talk about it, the terms he used were surely significant. He claimed he was there for people to "throw stones at and mock". That may point to a dangerous self-regard and, possibly, that is another theme that has emerged throughout his life just as, through time, those stones appear to have chipped away at a little of his resilience.

But then, maybe, it's also time to look back at where Sulzeer Jeremiah Campbell came from. He was born in Stratford, east London, in 1974 to Jamaican parents – Sewell, who died three years ago at 74, and Wilhelmina. Sol is the youngest of 12 children. Sewell became a railway worker while Wilhelmina found a job in the Ford car factory at Dagenham. Campbell has spoken of coming "from the streets", which is certainly typical of the background of many footballers, including his England team-mate Rio Ferdinand, who grew up in Peckham in south-east London.

Like Ferdinand, Campbell had discipline in his life, which meant that neither young man veered into delinquency and crime. For Sewell Campbell that was partly through necessity. A dozen children was a lot to bring up, especially as they were shoehorned into a small terraced house. There were nine boys, of whom Sol was the youngest. "I became a recluse within my own house," he once said in what has turned out to be a revealing insight into his psyche. "I became insular because at home there was no space to grow or to evolve, everything was tight and there was no room to breathe. People don't realise how that affects you as a kid. I wasn't allowed to speak, so my expression was football."

At Plaistow's Lister Community School he flourished as a fine sportsman playing for a local team – Rippleway Newham – before representing Essex alongside David Beckham. He had a short association with West Ham before Spurs picked him up and sent him to the Football Association's now defunct School of Excellence at Lilleshall, Shropshire. It was a much criticised establishment, but for teenagers such as Campbell, who was known as polite, conscientious and quiet, and the more rebellious Andrew Cole, who also went on to play for England, it was a lifeline. It was also, Campbell later said, the first time he had ever seen the countryside. He had room to breathe.

It was at Lilleshall that Campbell met Sky Andrew, also from Stratford, who was a player with the British table tennis team but who abandoned his sporting ambitions to become an agent instead. Campbell has been his most successful client and it was Andrew, often a presence in his life, who brokered the deal to Arsenal. It opened Campbell up to fabulous wealth – at one time he was said to be earning £5m a year or, as the football world prefers to describe such matters, £100,000 a week. One of his cars, a Porsche, boasted the number plate "Sol 1".

Such riches opened him up to scrutiny, as did the controversy surrounding the move to Arsenal itself. Campbell hardly helped matters by appearing in the television show Footballers' Wives and making his own video of his life, "Sol Man". Such vanity projects rarely work and this was no exception. Campbell came across as less than engaging. He had been accused, by at least one former girlfriend, of being "self-absorbed", and here he was talking to camera about being just an ordinary bloke while hob-nobbing on private jets.

At the same time, some newspapers began to speculate over his sexuality. Being homosexual is still a difficult subject in football, and Campbell was a predictable target, not least because he admitted he was suspicious of women – but only in the context of whether they were after his money – and did not marry.

This was soon superseded by a series of personal crises. First, in September 2002, on the night before Campbell's 29th birthday, came the death of his father, following a series of heart attacks and strokes. It hit Campbell extremely hard and he wondered whether he had the appetite to continue playing football. As Sewell's health was worsening, Sol received a phone call from Janet Tyler, a 33-year-old director of her family's timber business, whom he had been seeing casually, to tell him that she was expecting his baby. "I was pretty down when I found out," he says. A DNA test earlier this year proved that Joseph is his child. From being a closet gay he was now, gleefully, portrayed by the press as a bed-hopping lothario.

Campbell had plenty to deal with but then embarked on a relationship with Kelly Hop-pen, who is 14 years his senior. It seemed that, with one world imploding, Campbell needed to find another. Hoppen is said to have introduced him further into a life of luxurious restaurants and select parties. Campbell became a regular at smart Chelsea haunts such as Eight Over Eight and Daphne's, abandoning his previous existence in the usual footballers' haunt of electric-gated Hertfordshire. Instead Campbell bought a huge, Georgian townhouse.

He also struggled to maintain his football game. Injuries were taking their toll. He is a big man and a succession of problems, particularly with his ankles and calves, were affecting his game. Wenger and Arsenal couldn't call upon his services. It was suggested that Campbell was too distracted, that because of his involvement with Hoppen he had lost the hunger for the game. That his focus – something he, apparently, needed more than many other players – had gone.

He was excluded from the Arsenal team that played – and won – the 2005 FA Cup Final. Campbell, despite his protestations, was furious. It was written across his face and he swept out of the stadium after the match, refusing to speak to reporters. He had talks with Wenger, who assured him he had a future at the club, but rumours persisted that Arsenal were open to offers for a player who had signed a new two-year deal only a few months earlier. It was rumoured that Wenger didn't feel he could rely on his "Rock" anymore. The spine of the team had, it seemed, crumbled and needed to be replaced. Campbell raged against the whispering. "It seems to me that some people have an agenda," he said last year. "Maybe they don't like my colour or that I left Tottenham." The old wounds were still there.

His selection in place of Ferdinand for a vital England World Cup qualifier against Austria in October signalled a renaissance, but he suffered further disappointment when he was left out of the team for the friendly win over Argentina a month later. It was said that one reason coach Sven-Goran Eriksson felt able to treat Campbell like this was that he didn't complain. Instead he simply kept it all in. And then something extraordinary happened. By now Camp-be ll's relationship with Hoppen had finished – and even she was reported to have referred to him as a "tortured soul". "One day everything was fine, the next it wasn't," she complained. Campbell was facing even more turmoil. His brother, John, was jailed in June last year for 12 months after kicking a university classmate senseless when he suggested Sol was gay. Mark Golstein was hit so hard, during a local football club training session, that his jaw was shattered, along with several teeth, and stud marks were imprinted down the side of his head. He needed two metal plates inserted in his face. John Campbell claimed self-defence. "I am told you are frustrated when people taunt you about your brother," said Judge David Richardson.

The taunts would continue but, this time, it had nothing to do with sexuality or race. It was 1 February this year and Arsenal were 2-1 down at home to West Ham, their season lurching, at that time, into a downward spiral. Campbell had been at fault for both goals, caught out by his opponents' speed and exuberance, as his own legendary pace deserted him. But Arsenal still needed him. Instead, at half-time, he walked off and continued straight through the home dressing room as Wenger prepared his team-talk. He sought solitude – not for the first time in his career – and made for the treatment room on his own.

A fellow player believed he was "in shock", but it was not until club physiotherapist Gary Lewin broke the silence that the England star spoke. "I can't go on," Campbell is understood to have said. "What?" replied Lewin. "I can't go on." Instinctively, Lewin asked the defender if he was injured. Campbell replied: "No, I just can't go back out there." Wenger later intimated that he made the decision to withdraw Campbell for his own good and the benefit of the team. In fact, Campbell knew the game was up before anyone else did.

Arsenal stood by him, gave him time off and Campbell disappeared to Brussels. But Wenger was furious. He didn't try to hide behind excuses. Maybe he was being honest, maybe his anger meant he did-n't feel the need to protect Campbell. "I have a lot of emotion," the would-be actor had said. It poured out that night – at least in his actions, if not his words. Nothing he subsequently does, if he ever fulfils his film ambitions, will be as dramatic.

The speculation was stirred by his then team-mate Robert Pires, who observed that Campbell faced a "big worry" in his private life. Wenger talked of the player being in "a difficult period at the moment". Again there was speculation of a breakdown, of depression and psychological problems – and that he had given up football for good. He returned, and the allegations were dismissed as "crap" although Campbell offered no explanation as to his actions beyond saying everything was "OK" now.

Amazingly, he rallied to score Arsenal's goal in May's Champions League Final, but it was no surprise when, following the World Cup, he was released from his contract by the club. It was said that he wanted to play for a foreign club but no one big enough or glamorous enough came in for his services. If that was embarrassing, then so was talk that he had appointed agents, the Hollywood-based Endeavour Talent Agency, to help him pursue his film career instead. Campbell is also believed to be interested in the restaurant and property business, too. But for now he is back in the game. "I'm happy to be me," Campbell once repeated in an interview, as if it were mantra. Football is still the world he knows best even if it doesn't seem to really know him.

Life and Sol: Campbell’s chequered career

Charlotte Philby

1974: Born Sulzeer Jeremiah Campbell, on 18 September in Plaistow, east London, one of 12 children. Goes on to show prodigious talent as schoolboy footballer and is part-educated at the Football Association’s School of Excellence in Lilleshall.

1992: Scores on his debut for Tottenham Hotspur. 1996: Makes England debut, against Hungary. Plays in Euro 96. 1998: At 23, becomes second youngest England captain after Bobby Moore. In World Cup in France, harshly denied goal against Argentina in second-round match that England go on to lose on penalties.

2000: Member of England team that crash out of the European Championships.

2001: As his Spurs contract expires, Campbell causes outcry by moving to north London rivals Arsenal.

2002: Campbell is immediate success at Arsenal, prominent in the team that wins the Premiership and FA Cup Double. In World Cup that summer in Japan, scores his first goal for England, against Sweden. Campbell is the only England player selected for the World Cup All-Star Team.

2004: Repeat of 1998 as vital Campbell goal is ruled out during quarter-final of Euro 2004 against Portugal. Again England go on to lose match on penalties. Emerges on the celebrity scene by dating interior designer Kelly Hoppen.

2006: Dramatic half-time walkout as form deserts him playing for Arsenal against West Ham. Teammate Robert Pires refers to "big worries" in Campbell’s personal life. Paternity test proves he is the father of child of an ex-girlfriend. Named in England squad for World Cup in Germany – the first player to represent England at six successive major tournaments – but is third choice at centre-back behind Rio Ferdinand and John Terry. Announces decision to leave Arsenal in search of "fresh challenge". Days ahead of 2006-07 season, signed by Portsmouth.

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