For all his 81 England caps, one of Rio Ferdinand’s most striking international memories came when he wasn’t even playing.
A 17-year-old Ferdinand was one of a handful of promising youngsters brought in by the FA to sample manager Terry Venables’ Euro 96 camp. And part of his Three Lions experience was travelling on the team coach to England’s matches through a sea of fervent home supporters.
It’s a vision that has stayed with the then-West Ham defender ever since – and is one he hopes to see repeated this summer when Wembley hosts all three of England’s group matches ahead of five knockout matches, including both semis and the final.
“I was there in Euro 96, travelling to the stadium on home territory, going to Wembley and those moments have lived long in my memory since those days, very clear,” Ferdinand tells FourFourTwo.
“All the passion from the fans lining the streets as the coach went through, seeing all that fanfare is something else I’d love to be able to see [again]. And given that we’ve gone through the pandemic, it’d be a great end to that – so fingers crossed the guys give us something to shout about.”
Despite dreams of a happy homecoming for England this summer, Ferdinand is under no illusions how difficult it will be for Gareth Southgate’s promising young side to even reach Euro 2020’s latter stages.
As a member of the hallowed 'Golden Generation' of the noughties, the former Manchester United centre back knows only too well how tricky it can be for an England side to deliver on their promise. Each of the three World Cups he went to ended in disappointment, with quarter-final defeats to Brazil in 2002 and Portugal in 2006 the closest the 42-year-old came to international success.
But this is a different England side and Ferdinand believes the current crop may even have the edge on his peers in some aspects of their game.
“I think defensively my era was stronger when there was consistency in selections and personnel,” he considers.
“But in terms of the attacking areas, there’s a bit more depth with the squad now. If you look at the wide players especially, there are six players there – Mount, Foden, Grealish, Sterling, Rashford, Sancho – and you could pick any two and you’d be quite happy with them.”
So given the embarrassment of attacking riches Southgate has at his disposal, who would Ferdinand name in his starting XI?
“I don’t know, man,” he ponders. “I think the most important thing is Gareth [Southgate] getting across to these players that ‘you’re all going to play a part and you’re all going to be important’. And whoever starts the game against Croatia doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be starting in the next game and the game beyond that.”
While England may boast a lot of quality in their ranks, so do several of the other top European nations, with the likes of France and Portugal – who are both possible last-16 opponents if the Three Lions top their group – also brimming with talent.
Add to that that England’s only ever victory in the knockouts of a European Championship coming courtesy of a rare shoot-out success against Spain in 1996 and it’s clear predictions of glory might be premature.
“I think we’ll get out of the group stages fairly comfortably, but then I think we could go into a side of the draw where we play one of the teams in the group of death [consisting of France, Portugal, Germany and Hungary], which is going to be difficult,” Ferdinand adds.
“To give ourselves [a target] of ‘we’ll get to a semi-final or a final or whatever’ is difficult because there are too many good teams in it to start predicting… It’s going to be a good tournament, but at the same time I wouldn’t like to put any more pressure on England than is needed.
“It’s about being able to handle the occasion, it’s being put together tactically in the right way so you can execute. Sometimes we go into those games a bit apprehensive, maybe a bit negative even, conservative – that’ll be interesting to see with Gareth if we can go in there with the shackles off.
“Yeah, you need the balance, but also unleashing some of the talent in attacking areas to go and produce their best football.”
Whatever tricks Southgate has got up his sleeve to lead England to glory, they’ll take some going to rival a prank Ferdinand fell foul of on the run up to the tournament.
As part of a Heineken campaign for Euro 2020, the ex-England star was set up by Welsh rival Robbie Savage as part of a fake hall of fame admission that included Ferdinand being immortalised with a painting of him. The only trouble was, it portrayed the one-time England skipper as a proud Welshman and left him having to save face at the big reveal.
“I was asked to do a virtual sit-in for an artist, which I found weird anyway and then I had to go and see the finished article of the painting they’d done of me. When it was unveiled, it was a picture of me draped in a Welsh flag,” Ferdinand explains.
“Then I saw at the bottom of the poster there was a camera and I thought ‘this is being filmed’ so I just wanted to be a bit nicer and polite. That politeness is probably the thing that killed me and then obviously Robbie [Savage] comes out and I realised it was a wind up.”
Ferdinand is more famous for being the prankster rather than the victim thanks to his TV show Rio’s World Cup Wind-Ups, when he tricked several of his England team-mates ahead of the 2006 tournament, and he’s vowed to get revenge on Savage – no matter how long he has to wait.
The Welshman should be on his guard if Ferdinand’s previous practical jokes are anything to go by. Nobody was safe 15 years ago, with the likes of England captain David Beckham being forced to jump out of a car and run down the street in Manchester’s Moss Side area and a fresh-faced Wayne Rooney being dragged into a life-saving operation for a young fan’s dog. It’s a long story.
And even though he was the butt of Savage’s prank this time, Ferdinand says the chance to relive those fun times is a great way to bring some laughter for everyone involved.
“It [the World Cup Wind-Ups] was a good laugh and the lads had a laugh about it,” he remembers.
“We talk about these friendly rivalries that go on as part of this [Heineken] campaign, but also things like that bring people together. Obviously, Wales and England, there’s a rivalry there and Robbie [Savage] and myself had a rivalry when we played.
“But it’s a friendly rivalry, it’s healthy, we like it and being part of this campaign with Heineken – who are the Euro 2020 official sponsors – talking about the rivalry, bringing that back and really getting people excited about it, I think that’s a good thing. Obviously, with the pandemic, it’s difficult to create that without fans in the stadium and without that electricity that runs through the stadium when it’s full up.”
Although if Ferdinand’s hopes of England glory come true in next month’s Euros final, there’ll be no need for pranks to liven up that crowd.
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