World Cup agony for Ferdinand as skipper jinx strikes
ENGLAND began training under beautiful blue African skies yesterday and ended under the darkest of clouds, their captain Rio Ferdinand screaming in agony, their defensive plans shredded and their World Cup hopes left as damaged as the ligaments in the centre-back's left knee.
"It's the curse of the captain,'' lamented Fabio Capello.
Ferdinand suffered his knee injury during the final minutes of England's second training session yesterday after a challenge with the blameless Emile Heskey. He was sent to the local hospital with three of England's medical staff for a scan.
Having emerged on crutches, he returned in an ambulance to the team hotel. Soon it was confirmed that his World Cup was over. Tottenham's Michael Dawson flew out overnight as a replacement.
Capello had discarded his last captain, John Terry, for conduct unbecoming and he has clearly studied the pitiful history of England's leaders. From Kevin Keegan in 1982 to Bryan Robson in 1986 and 1990 and David Beckham in 2002 and 2006 and now Ferdinand, the men with the armband have been stalked by injury.
Capello has now turned to Steven Gerrard to captain England against the United States as Group C opens here on June 12. Growing up on a Huyton housing estate, Gerrard was such a big fan of Robson as England captain that he briefly and bravely donned a Manchester United No 7 shirt in tribute until his Liverpool-mad father screamed at him to remove it, shouting: "What will the neighbours think?''
Gerrard loves England, and has long dreamed of leading his country into a World Cup, but he will not have enjoyed the way that the armband has fallen into his possession. When Ferdinand crumpled after challenging Heskey for the ball in the dying embers of training at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus, Gerrard, Capello, the whole squad and country felt his intense pain.
England have lost a respected leader, a talented defender and a charismatic dressing-room personality. The whole camp is in shock, having witnessed the awful incident and then learning that Ferdinand was out of the World Cup.
Many waves of distressing episodes are required to unnerve Capello, but the Italian's body-language after training spoke of a man in mourning. When relating what had occurred, Capello crossed his arms almost violently, always a sign of anger, and leaned back in his chair, betraying his deep frustration. Capello knew what a grievous blow England had just suffered.
"He is one of the starting players, the captain, a leader,'' Capello remarked of Ferdinand. "It is obviously bad news and everyone with the squad is very disappointed and sorry for Rio. It was an accidental injury in training, but had nothing to do with the pitch.
"It happened in a normal tackle with Heskey. Rio turned and there was a problem with the lateral (medial ligaments). He felt big pain in the knee. Big pain.''
Heskey was absolved of any blame, but it is fair to report that England supporters were not being charitable in their assessment of the Aston Villa striker's involvement.
There will be those who argue that Ferdinand has not been at his best this season, who will point to an injury-dishevelled record of featuring in only
14 of 24 games under Capello, in 26 out of 42 internationals since the last World Cup and just 19 starts in 55 games for United this season.
Ferdinand's body has undeniably been wracked with problems, many emanating from an old back complaint, but he was here in South Africa, he was fit, he was the team leader and, after Rooney, the character around the camp who most lifted spirits. Some of the glue that united a disparate squad has melted away. "The players were upset, absolutely upset,'' added Capello.
Ferdinand was said to be "very sad," inevitably so, and is likely to return home on Monday.
Capello sought to be phlegmatic, arguing that every manager prepared for the worst on the eve of a tournament or final.
"It has happened to me before with (Dejan) Savicevic,'' said the former AC Milan coach, reflecting on the loss of the attacking midfielder before the 1995 European Cup final against Ajax.
And now Ferdinand. This is a day of deep sadness for all who admire Ferdinand as a professional and a person.
For all his exhilarating displays in crunch games with Liverpool over the past decade, Gerrard is not a natural international captain, being too introspective.
He will relish the honour, and has a record of captaining England to four wins and four losses, but he must ensure his new World Cup duties do not distract him.
As the squad prepare to say farewell to Ferdinand, it is hard to escape the sad conclusion that age is catching up with England, that the Golden Generation has become the Olden Generation. (© Daily Telegraph, London)