Friday, June 5, 2009

Rio Ferdinand

Thirty-year-old Rio Ferdinand's back problems mean that the superstar stopper is now entering the twilight of his career. Looking back upon a colourful run to date, though, it's easy to forget just how much of an impact he's had. After all, you can't go from humble beginnings to near unrivalled success without an array of staggering highs, character-building lows and everything in between.

Ferdinand grew up in the 1980s on the Friary estate in Peckham, a tough area of London infamous for its violent crime. A true product of the playgrounds, he initially used football as a distraction from his surroundings, and eventually a means of escape. Always a capable athlete, he was actually presented with a very different path, accepted to the Central School of Ballet in London, before realising his potential as a footballer. Soon he was training with the likes of Charlton Athletic, Chelsea, Millwall and Queens Park Rangers, before eventually opting for the West Ham United youth set-up after Frank Lampard Sr. took an interest in him.

Within four years, the now 6-foot-2 centre-back made his first team debut against Sheffield Wednesday, at the tail-end of the 1995-96 season. At the end of the 97-98 campaign, he was a 19-year-old Hammer of the Year, having also become England's youngest ever defender that season – a record since broken by Micah Richards.

Ambitious Leeds United made him the world's most expensive defender in 2000, and he was captain within a year of his arrival at Elland Road. His first season in Yorkshire involved a Champions League semi-final appearance, at which point Valencia ousted them.

2002 saw Ferdinand given another crack at a World Cup with the Three Lions; he'd blown his first one sensationally, having been sent home by Glenn Hoddle in 1998 over a drink driving incident. In Japan and South Korea, however, he proved himself to be ready for another step up, and Leeds, who'd dug themselves into massive debts, were obliged to sell him to Manchester United for another world record defensive sum, which eventually amounted to nearly £33 million.

Despite some initial jitters, Rio's continental style of play allowed him to start for United, initially alongside Jaap Stam, as the Red Devils romped to the 02-03 Premier League title. However, he'd have to wait a while before writing his name into the history books at the Theatre of Dreams, becoming a massive part of a golden era for the club.

He was involved in more unsavoury business in 2003, when he was banned for eight months for missing drugs testing, from January 2004 onwards, thus missing the remainder of the season and Euro 2004. He claimed that he'd merely forgotten to attend his appointment, but the FA and FIFA weren't impressed and actually lobbied unsuccessfully to ban him for a year.

He returned to the fold in time for Germany 2006, but England were underwhelming and exited at the quarter-final stage. It's something of a pity that England's decade has been barren, both in terms of plaudits and, of course, trophies.

That he's managed to progress in the way he has, despite this self-initiated set-back is impressive, regardless of the truth behind the controversy. He has scored some crucial goals as Sir Alex Ferguson's troops endeavoured to becoming the driving force in English football. He'd have to wait until the end of the 2006-07 campaign, though, to get his hands on the Premier league crown again, also winning the League Cup that season.

Next term, everything went right for United: they came of age to win their historic Premier League and Champions League double – Ferdinand named skipper as Chelsea were ousted in Moscow – and he signed a new five-year deal worth a reported £130,000-per-week. In March, he also captained England as new boss Fabio Capello sought to rotate the armband, performing well in the role, despite suffering friendly defeat at the hands of France. He was then named vice-captain behind regular defensive partner John Terry.

Off the pitch, Ferdinand has a lot of life about him. A music producer and entrepreneur – he edits an online magazine – he also performs charity work on behalf of the Live The Dream foundation.

With 72 caps to his name thus far, there's every chance that Ferdinand can become another England centurion before he hangs up his boots. At club level, he enjoys veteran status as United chase more domestic and continental success. The rearguard has been particularly sound during the 2008-09 campaign, and Ferdinand has played his part, having formed one of the most formidable tandems in the game with Nemanja Vidic.

His application and ability have never been in doubt, and he'll hope to rocket up the list of all-time greats over the next few years by leading United to more silverware, and helping England to achieve something truly worthwhile in South Africa next year.


Premier League: 2002–03, 2006–07, 2007–08
Football League Cup: 2006, 2009
FA Community Shield: 2003, 2007, 2008
UEFA Champions League: 2007–08
FIFA Club World Cup: 2008

PFA Premier League Team of the Year: 2001–02 (Leeds), 2004–05, 2006–07, 2007–08 (Manchester United)
FIFPro World XI: 2007–08

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