Sol Campbell: The Premiership Interview

Sol Campbell has been through the lot - innuendo about his sexuality, the death of his father and constant tabloid attention. He is also articulate, intelligent and has toyed with the idea of becoming a film star. The Portsmouth defender opens up to Sam Wallace
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Sol Campbell is eating lunch in what might generously be described as a school canteen. Certainly, there are children's paintings on the wall and the chairs are stacked on every table apart from the one that he and Andy Cole are sitting at. Portsmouth's training ground is not five-star and it certainly does not compare with the temple to football that is Arsenal's equivalent in the Hertfordshire countryside. But Campbell says later that this is all just part of the charm - and the challenge.

For now he finishes lunch, thanks the chef and heads out to meet the most excited group of children anywhere in Hampshire that afternoon. Campbell has two Premiership medals, he scored a goal in the European Cup final in May and, so they say, is one of the wealthiest footballers in the country. It makes him quite a celebrity in these parts and the kids can say when they return to school from their half-term holidays that they spent one afternoon playing football with a man who has represented England at the last five international tournaments.

It is not easy to get an audience with one of the most contemplative, private players in English football but Campbell had agreed to speak as part of an initiative between the Portsmouth sponsors Oki Printing Solutions and the Hampshire Constabulary. The Oki Street Sixes Leagues give local children a chance to play organised football and the kids were not the only ones looking thrilled to have their photographs taken with Campbell that afternoon - the police officers looked pretty chuffed too. For Campbell, it is an initiative that is close to his heart.

Born in Stratford, east London, the youngest of 10 siblings, the 32-year-old is well acquainted with the challenges confronting children from deprived areas. "I never got the benefit of anything like this and at 11 you can easily get into the wrong company," he says. "Now it's worse. Crime seems to be more glorified and that's part of the reason why it's important to get this message across. Instead of going off and looking for amusement in the wrong places, they can come and play football and be safe."

The mention of his background takes us on to another issue that Harry Redknapp had raised earlier. The Portsmouth manager standing on the little paved area outside his modest training ground - a new one is to be built - had gestured at the buildings and suggested a theory for the Portsmouth renaissance of Campbell. Why Campbell, David James and Cole were rediscovering some of their best form. "They use those little school changing-rooms, it is like going back to their roots, their early days playing on Wanstead Flats or Hackney Marshes," the Portsmouth manager said. "They enjoy it, they all muck in together - it has been good."

When that is put to Campbell he grins and rolls his eyes but he certainly agrees. "Coming here is like seeing my career come full circle," he says. "Yes, the facilities aren't the same I have been used to with Arsenal and England but I am enjoying my football again. Coming down here for me is a different level. I was focused before but now I'm here the focus is slightly different. More intense maybe."

And it has been some career: the extraordinary move from Tottenham Hotspur to Arsenal in 2001, the 69 England caps and then the drama of this year. On 1 February, having been found badly wanting in two first-half goals conceded to West Ham United at Highbury, he walked out of the stadium at half-time, apparently unable to carry on. This colossus of English football, an international for 10 years was, it seemed, on the verge of a breakdown. He returned for Arsenal to play in the European Cup final (and the semi-final second leg against Villarreal), and went to the World Cup finals but featured just once against Sweden, as a substitute.

After the tournament, Arsenal agreed to release him from his contract to join a foreign club but there was precious little response if you discount the dubious attractions of Fenerbahce in Turkey. When Campbell joined Portsmouth, even the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, made a joke at his expense, quipping "have they sold Portsmouth to a foreign country"? The final blow was delivered by Steve McClaren, who left a message on Campbell's voicemail to tell him he was no longer part of his England plans.

His hurt at the rejection from England is clear and it is augmented by what he perceives as a lack of "respect" over the casual manner in which he was discarded and his sympathy for his fellow outcast, and club-mate, James in particular.

As for the problems that afflicted him when he went missing after that West Ham game, they elicit only a reticent grin and an eagerness to change the subject immediately.

"They [the problems] have completely gone. Getting out of London has really helped me to be honest. I am just getting on with my job. I spent all of my life in the city. London knows me and I know London but I only pop back to see my family and friends. It's nice to get on with my job: maybe getting out with a new club and a new start.

"It's been good - training, working, gym work and the gaffer has got charisma, hasn't he? It's been great to get out of London. I needed to be convinced. I knew about the training ground and there are plans to move it. It takes time and planning to progress a club. Portsmouth have spent a lot of money but you need to use it properly and you want to become a big club and big clubs spend money in a particular way and properly. That's why they are up there."

Against Chelsea last weekend, he looked like he has for much of this season: the Campbell of old - bowling into tackles, dominating the defence. Earlier, Redknapp had enthused about a crucial saving header from Campbell the previous week against Teddy Sheringham in the win over West Ham - "they end up crashing into the hoardings together, what a magnificent header". Campbell is a treasured possession at Fratton Park - he was rested for the Carling Cup defeat in midweek as they want to get the most from him.

"You can hide when you are at a bigger club. But there's no hiding place for Sol Campbell when you're playing for Portsmouth at Stamford Bridge," Campbell says. "Bigger clubs have more resources to draw on in terms of players and experience. Here you have to look after yourself more too because you are more important to the set-up - there's not necessarily anyone there to take your place. At a bigger club you can be more relaxed about that kind of thing."

Football talk is fine but Campbell has always offered an interesting perspective on life in general outside the game. Now out of London where he has spent his whole life, apart from his time as a teenager at the Football Association's now closed Lilleshall centre of excellence in Shropshire, it is difficult to imagine him adopting the life of a tweedy Hampshire country gent but he says that enjoying playing football again has made him happier in his life.

"It's all linked up. I'm a human being and a footballer. There are some players out there who are just complete robots. I'm not a robot. Life is about your football, your friends and family and where you live. It's about having respect for yourself and your team-mates and your opponents. It's the whole package.

"Footballers in the past were into different things. In the 21st century, the mind has expanded and we are exposed to different things. Look at American sport where kids go to university to play sport but if their academic grades are down then they don't play basketball or whatever. If someone has a bit of intelligence or wants to learn we get called a bit funny. Am I supposed to be a footballer with no intelligence? What am I going to do after football? Am I not supposed to want to learn? It's about connecting, TV or film or books, but you have to absorb things from wherever you get it. The majority of players are from working-class backgrounds and we need to learn."

It is, what you might call, the whole Sol. He has been through a lot in the past few years - innuendo about his sexuality, the death of his father Sewell, the imprisonment of his brother John, a paternity case that meant he is now a father and relationships that have attracted the interest of tabloid newspapers. With all that in mind, the logical question seems to be: when is the autobiography coming out?

Campbell laughs at that one although he is adamant that it will not be soon. Then he gives it some thought. He admits that a "scary, scary amount" has been written about him in the past. "You would need two books for me," he says. "In fact you would need to make a film. I won't do it now. Not now."

The mention of movies brings us back to another old Campbell story, the admission he once made that he would be interested in going into acting when his football career was over. It was met with hoots of derision at the time, not least because it was exactly the kind of thing that footballers are not supposed to do. When I mention it, Campbell says that he has looked at it seriously but says that to do it properly he would have to "give up everything else" - it would be "too mentally draining".

Instead, he is focusing on playing for as long as he can and there are plenty of precedents of great Italian defenders going on long into their 30s. Franco Baresi stopped at 37, Paolo Maldini is still playing for Milan at 38, Alessandro Costacurta gets the odd game there at 40. So how long can Campbell, at 32, hang on? "Another 20 years!" he jokes. "Well, another five at least - you look at Maldini and Costacurta who are still playing but in Italy the goalkeepers and defenders are the stars because that's their mentality. You also see other countries have players who are still playing at 34 and 35 for their national team.

"I'm happy here, you know. At a club which is totally different but I'm happy. Sometimes you have less but you have more. By that I mean I'm enjoying my football and I'm trying to help the club move in the right direction and I would be very happy if we got into Europe next year. That's our ultimate goal."

Campbell is considering taking his coaching badges at Portsmouth but if he does go into management it will have to be for the love of it because he does not need the money. He has seen what a difficult time Tony Adams - his Arsenal predecessor and now assistant manager at Portsmouth - has endured. Campbell's ambitions are clearly not restricted to the Premiership - "you can take it wherever you want, if there's a decent job in the States for instance".

By now Andy Cole has finished checking his e-mails and wants to head off for the afternoon, both of them are looking for new homes in the area. Campbell is contemplating the unappealing prospect of a shower in the decidedly ropey changing-rooms on the ground floor. The chef has gone home, so too the schoolchildren and with no involvement in the Carling Cup the following day, Campbell has a day of rest to look forward to.

"I haven't tried to be a role model for kids in my career because I know what a lot of them are going through," Campbell says. "A lot of these kids come from working-class backgrounds just like me. I don't care if it's Portsmouth, London, Birmingham, Newcastle or Glasgow. The issue is the same all over Britain.

"It's the working-class kids who are most at risk. I came from a family of 12 and that can be hard when you get inside the house. You want to be outside because you have space and can express yourself. For me, I did it through football."

What they said about Sol

'Sol was very down at half-time and he felt guilty. I took him off because he was in a mental shape, I felt, too much down to come back. He has no problems physically. Sol is not well.'

Manager Arsène Wenger on Campbell's half-time walk-out during Arsenal's home game with West Ham in February

'He certainly has a big worry on the private side and that is what is upsetting him.'

Arsenal team-mate Robert Pires on Campbell's problems

'He has been a top player all his career. I played badly all over the world.'

Steve Bruce, Birmingham manager and former Manchester United defender

'Campbell is one of the best central defenders in Europe. He is strong, skilful and has a good brain. I think most coaches would like him, especially for nothing!'

Claudio Ranieri, the former Chelsea manager, on Campbell's reputation on leaving Arsenal

'A lot of clubs want him. He is a world-class player.'

Franz Beckenbauer on the same subject

'Sol has been a giant for us but we respect his decision to move on and of course, we are very sorry to see him go... Winning two Premiership titles, three FA Cups and scoring in the Champions' League final against Barcelona (left) will surely be highlights he will treasure.'

Wenger sums up Campbell's Arsenal career