Rio guilty of falling down on the job

Brilliant at the 2002 World Cup, England's centre-half is in danger of being remembered for the wrong reasons. Glenn Moore reports
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The Independent Football

There is no obvious reason why he should. Due to the Manchester United connection they will probably have met but, for Ferdinand, Best is from a different, distant generation of footballers and he is unlikely to feel any more than the mild sadness of most fans at Best's condition.

Yet Ferdinand's own position brings to mind the oft-told tale of Best, Miss World, a hotel room awash with money and champagne, and a porter saying plaintively: "Where did it all go wrong, George?" When this old chestnut is aired, Best points to a European Cup winners' medal and 411 League appearances as evidence that, far from wasting his talent, he gave it a decent run before concentrating on the pleasures of celebrity. In reality, he could have achieved much more.

While Ferdinand is unlikely to finish up as an alcoholic or play for Stockport, Bournemouth, Hibernian and Dunstable to raise a few bob, he is also in danger of letting a rare talent spoil. This season he has been coasting and it is showing in his performances.

They have dipped so far below the standard he set in the 2002 World Cup he is in danger of being dropped, for the first time in Sven Goran Eriksson's five seasons as England manager, for the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers against Austria and Poland.

This decline follows his unedifying and prolonged contract dispute with United, finally settled when Ferdinand agreed a £110,000-a-week deal. It also comes at a time when questions are again being asked about his focus off the pitch.

Ferdinand, whose personal life has been a tabloid staple, and who has been banned from driving four times, including an alcohol-related ban which led to his being dropped by England in 1997, has been spotted more frequently than the club would like at nightspots in Manchester and London.

During the summer he was also involved in well-publicised incidents in a Stockholm nightclub and Watford hotel, the latter on the occasion of Jody Morris' stag night. There is unsurprising dismay within Old Trafford that he appears to be Wayne Rooney's new best friend, a status sealed when the pair recently appeared on stage at a concert by American rap artist 50 Cent.

All this, of course, after the club supported him through an eight-month ban following his failure to take a drug test at their Carrington base.

And yet Ferdinand is not just another wrong-headed, overpaid, prima donna who does not appreciate his blessings. He has been involved in several worthy causes including child literacy and anti-racism campaigns and last summer his record label, White Chalk, held a Pop Idol-style talent show in Manchester with the aim of encouraging musically talented youngsters.

Nor has he forgotten his roots. The son of a Jamaican father, who left the family home when he was 12, and Irish mother, Ferdinand grew up on a tough estate in Peckham, south London. He was at school with Stephen Lawrence, the teenager murdered in a racist attack in Eltham, and grew up near where 10-year-old Damilola Taylor was later slain. He has worked with the Damilola Taylor Trust and has helped local individuals and organisations on his regular visits back to the area. In 2003 Southwark Council erected a blue plaque in honour of Ferdinand's contribution to the community.

So who is the real Rio? The social worker or the flash loafer? Eriksson does not much care, as long as his star defender regains his best form. Dropping Ferdinand could be the answer as he does sometimes need a jolt. He has previously admitted he can become complacent. As long ago as 2001 he confessed: "In the past I had always felt able to combine my socialising with my football. It wasn't all drinking, just staying out late. I was young and I felt fine. I thought I could handle it. I was certainly enjoying myself too much."

He then credited his move to Leeds, away from the temptations of London, with an improvement in personal discipline. Since crossing the Pennines, it seems, a laxity has crept back into his life, and game.

Ferdinand is 26. He ought to be on the verge of great things, perhaps in Germany next year, but he could find himself on the touchline, as John Terry, who has got his life in order after a wayward spell, takes his place.

The next time David Beckham invites an England team-mate to Madrid for a heart-to-heart over the tapas the recipient should be Ferdinand.