The rise and several falls of the talented boy from Peckham

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"My dad always said to me that you have to be a totally different person on the pitch to what you are off it." For Rio Ferdinand, the advice when he was a gangly but talented teenager had, by yesterday, taken on an unfortunate double meaning.

When history comes to tell the story of Britain's most expensive football player, it may still be the fairytale of the boy from a London sink estate who became an international sporting star with a telephone number salary.

But with news that he had been dropped from the England team for missing a drugs test, another, scandal-prone, version of the existence of Rio Gavin Ferdinandis a possibility.

In the past six years, the 24-year-old Manchester United defender has shown that his footballing skills are matched only by his ability to attract unsavoury headlines. As one childhood friend from the deprived estate in Peckham, south-east London, where he grew up put it yesterday: "I don't know any more ­ there all these Rio Ferdinands out there now. To me, he's a normal quiet guy who hasn't forgotten where he came from. But then there's this Rio in the papers who's out drinking, pulling birds and generally fucked things up. Which one is he?"

Ferdinand sprang to prominence as a £35-a-week apprentice and then a first-team regular for West Ham at the age of 18. He was feted for his uncommon poise, patience and vision, drawing comparisons with another West Ham and England hero, Bobby Moore.

But Ferdinand is nothing if not a man of contrasts. The player has said there is another side to his footballing persona that he has been keen to develop. In an interview last summer, he said: "On the pitch, you have got to be nasty and have a lot of discipline and aggression."

Those who have met Ferdinand say such attributes do not come naturally, describing him as polite, eloquent and generous to his friends and family, in particular his mother for whom he bought a £300,000 house in Kent.

But fame and fortune have also brought distractions. The first sign of things going awry came in 1997 after Ferdinand was selected to play for England in a World Cup qualifying game. He was dropped when he was caught drink-driving.

It was a warning which was not heeded. After being left out of the England side for Euro 2000, Ferdinand went with a group of other players to the Cypriot resort of Ayia Napa where they videotaped themselves having sex with women. The tapes were passed to a newspaper.

Despite Ferdinand's moneyspinning moves to Leeds and Old Trafford there has been a steady trickle of further incidents. In the days before England's crucial World Cup qualifier against Greece in October 2001, Ferdinand broke a curfew to visit bars in central London. Defeat for England in the World Cup was followed by all-night drinking and gambling sessions in Las Vegas.

The young Rio was brought up on the Friary estate by his mother Janice, and his father Julian, a tailor from St Lucia who left home when Ferdinand was 12.

Ferdinand credits his mother with instilling the sense of hard graft and respect which he claims helped propel him to success. He tried singing, acting and even ballet before being discovered.

Ferdinand, who lives with Rebecca Ellison, 23, keeps in touch with his roots and has offered to help a string of community projects. As he told one interviewer: "I don't think I'm greater than anyone else, just one of the lads." Some might say that is just his problem.