HIS name is Rio. The reception the Manchester United star received in Uganda, as he opened a football academy, shows how far he has come.
A muggy Sunday in June and Rio Ferdinand is not enjoying a weekend of glitzy weddings featuring international team-mates Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Michael Carrick and Gary Neville but is in Kampala for a meeting with the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni. Alongside the Manchester United defender at the State House is his father, Julian, cousin Max and a television crew. They are here with Mujib Kasule, the director of the capital's Proline Soccer Academy. President Museveni, who fought in the war that removed Idi Amin and gained power 21 years ago, stands on a dais to be photographed receiving a 'Ferdinand No 5' shirt from the player himself.
A key member of the United team who last season prevented Chelsea from claiming a hat-trick of Premiership titles, the 28-year-old has flown to the east African country to help promote Uganda's first football academy, which Julian is running and he and brother Anton, the West Ham defender, are supporting. Ferdinand has eschewed the weddings for the three-day visit. 'I had promised my dad,' he says. 'And you can't break a promise to him, can you?'
His commitments include a fund-raising dinner on the Saturday evening, an early-morning coaching session with some of the academy's children after a night spent dancing and DJ-ing and a visit to watch a Proline team play a friendly at the Nakivubo, the former national stadium. Throughout the trip, Ferdinand proves a natural communicator, at ease whether shaking hands, posing for photographs or speaking eloquently with President Museveni about the untapped footballing potential of a country whose national team have not qualified for the finals of the African Nations Cup since the 1970s.
Ferdinand, despite a successful career featuring 59 England caps, outstanding performances at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and an ability to make defending appear sublimely easy, is a player whose reputation can polarise opinion. 'I do get caned, but that's life,' he says. 'I made some mistakes growing up.' His charge sheet would include some notorious tabloid exposÃ©s, four driving disqualifications, and the eight-month playing ban for missing a drugs test that ruled him out of Euro 2004. Commercial ventures are also pointed to by critics who question his sense of taste and wonder if he is the most suitable role model for young boys.
While at the State House, Ferdinand thanks the President for the promise of financial support and land to move the academy from its temporary home, before outlining how he believes the game can be harnessed in one of the world's poorest countries. 'Football's a fantastic tool for education and development,' he says, before stressing that when the academy is built no child will be offered one of its 150 places unless they also attend the school that will be part of a 12-acre site boasting four football fields, a gym and recreation centre.
Museveni's response offers a hint of the challenges in this part of the world. 'Yes, football is important - for health, for recreation and as a link for the people of this country.' Then, in response to Julian who identified karate, rather than football, as a sport he has participated in, the President says: 'I only played as an amateur and I don't know about professional football or its economics. But I do know a little about karate. My karate was just for killing people.'
After decades of corruption, conflict and civil war, Museveni has brought a period of relative stability to Uganda, apart from in the northern territories that are still under the sway of rebels. Yet there was a reminder of the country's troubled past when Ferdinand was driven through Pan-African Square, formerly the site of numerous executions under Amin. On that morning, though, the road was instead rammed with fans in a welcome that managed to astound even Ferdinand, whose football career has taken him from the jagged estates of south London - where he witnessed shootings and other violence - to three World Cups, two League titles with United, combined transfer fees of Â£48m and a salary of around Â£100,000 a week.
His bodyguard Jim spent an uncomfortable hour during the drive to Kampala's Serena Hotel concerned that the Uganda police escort might not be enough to protect Ferdinand. Their vehicle was in danger of being engulfed by a near-manic crowd of workmen, schoolchildren, fans and young men on motorbikes who followed the convoy blowing bugles and waving bunches of eucalyptus.
All the way Ferdinand, wearing shades, stood up out of the sun roof of his 4x4 to soak up a reception that widened his famous grin and revealed the astonishing global reach of the Premier League. 'I didn't know what to do at first. People like Wayne Rooney and Becks live in a world where they're on the front pages. I get my fair share, but it doesn't get to a point where it's silly. Uganda is a special environment. When I stood out of the roof I felt a bit stupid. But the crowd was great. I began waving, the whole thing was just amazing.'
Rio Gavin Ferdinand was born in Peckham on 7 November 1978. His parents never married, and he and Anton have a further three sisters on their father's side and a brother and sister who are their mother's children, all of whom are younger. Ferdinand grew up on the Friary estate where, if he was not 'causing harmless havoc', he would play football all day and dream of making it.
It was a tough but enjoyable upbringing. 'I couldn't ask for something and expect it there the next week,' he says, during conversation over the gourmet buffet at the Serena - a hotel of lavish bars, dramatic water features and a nocturnal life that attracts heavily made-up escorts. 'I'd have to ask for it in advance and hopefully get it for my birthday. But I knew no different so I was a happy child. And coming to Uganda and saying, "Oh I had a tough upbringing" would be - well, it was rosy compared to here, but I did see things others don't. There were people killing themselves, getting stabbed and dying on the staircases, young girls being killed who were prostitutes or getting raped.'
Ferdinand attended school with Stephen Lawrence, the teenager murdered in a racist attack in Eltham 14 years ago, and grew up close to where 10-year-old Damilola Taylor was stabbed to death with a glass bottle in 2000. In 2007, though, it is the spectre of guns that poses the biggest threat to young people in the inner cities. In February, three teenagers were shot dead in south London: 15-year-old Michael Dosunmu and Billy Cox, killed in their Clapham and north Peckham homes, and James Andre Smartt-Ford, who was murdered at Streatham ice rink.
'I've seen people being shot,' Ferdinand says, keen to talk about an issue that is proving difficult for government. 'I was about 18 - I don't know if they were dead, because I didn't stay around to take a look. But I don't want to go on like my area was bad, I don't want it portrayed like that. Nowadays, though, kids can't go out on the estate. I've been back - it's a ghost town.'
How important is it for a child to have boundaries? 'Very. Nowadays kids are having babies. My mum and dad were quite young when they had me, but they were mature - my dad had left home when he was 15, so they had to grow up. My parents were quite strict and our estate was big - I wasn't allowed off without asking. But now there are kids having kids and there's no respect in their heart so they don't know how to get respect from their own children. That's the cycle. And kids have no respect for adults. Back in the day if someone walked by with their mum and there was aggravation going on, it would wait until they saw the kid alone. Now that barrier is hardly there, there's no role models. Kids are walking into other people's front doors past the mum and dad and shooting other kids in their beds.'
Ferdinand's Anglo-Irish mother, Janice, who worked as child carer, and Julian, a tailor, split when he was 14. But his father made what Ferdinand describes as a decision crucial to his and Anton's wellbeing, and for their hopes of becoming footballers. 'There wasn't a big, "Oh I'm leaving." He just said, "I'm going away for a little while." He moved on to the estate across the road. But I remember later he was taking me to training in a clapped out VW Beetle he ferried me all over London in. He said, "I almost went y'know, I almost went." I asked, "What do you mean?" And he replied, "I almost went to St Lucia. It crossed my mind to return - I'd had enough. But then I thought about you and Anton".'
Ferdinand is committed to community work. In April Tony Blair made him an anti-gun and knives ambassador, the first of what the government hopes are several Premier League footballers who will help tackle the problem. He has also been involved with the Damilola Taylor Trust and anti-racism, Aids awareness and child literacy campaigns.
In 2003 Southwark Council unveiled a blue plaque on the estate where he grew up, above where he used to play football, to recognise his contribution. Ferdinand stresses that friends working in what he still regards as his local community - 'I never really left' - keep him in touch. 'Some work for Southwark council or they help disadvantaged children in schools. They say there's kids who will get messages on their mobile and run outside, do a deal, then go back. Young children have access to guns and knifes and teachers are getting paid nothing to risk their life in a confrontation.
'Like with the academy and our wish to educate the kids because hardly any will make it, I'm just a tool to hopefully open people's eyes and gain the attention needed to back the people who've grown up in these difficult areas. I know some kids see it as a dead end. That if they can't make it as a footballer or a rapper or singer, there's no opportunities to do anything. But if you apply yourself there are avenues.'
Ferdinand, it seems, has always had a broader take on life. Asked to name the most memorable experience of his youth he does not choose training at QPR aged 10 or signing on with West Ham at 17, when suddenly he was no longer like his mates who 'couldn't go into a chip shop and buy saveloy and chips.'
No, 'the best thing for me was travelling. My parents asked which secondary school I wanted to attend. They mentioned some in my area. But I wanted to go to Blackheath Blue Coats, which was a long bus ride. Why? To meet new people. I met loads and my social skills became better. At school I liked drama, PE, theatre. I was at a school where a guy did gymnastics voluntarily, so I did. Then I won a scholarship when I was 11 to go to the Central School of Ballet. I did ballet at first because it allowed me off my estate. I took a 63 bus all the way to Farringdon in the middle of London.'
Was he worried about being teased? 'I hung around and played football with a lot of older boys who are now my best mates. I wouldn't have told them about ballet or I would've got ripped. But by the time I was 13 some people knew and I didn't care.'
Ferdinand signed his first professional contract with West Ham in November 1995. He made his debut against Sheffield Wednesday the following May as a 70th-minute replacement for Tony Cottee, and was then asked by England head coach Terry Venables to train with his Euro 96 squad. While at Upton Park he was spotted by the agent Pini Zahavi, who still represents Ferdinand. Full international recognition would have followed under Glenn Hoddle in 1997, but Ferdinand was caught drinking and driving a week before the World Cup qualifier against Moldova. He finally made his debut, again as a substitute, against Cameroon that November and was part of the squad that went to France 98. Hoddle did not play him during the World Cup and for Euro 2000 he was left out of the squad by Kevin Keegan. That summer an infamous incident occurred while he was on holiday in Ayia Napa. Ferdinand, Kieron Dyer and Frank Lampard filmed themselves partying with a number of women. Inevitably, the story was splashed in a tabloid. 'I put myself in a few bad situations when I was growing up,' he says, 'in terms of going out and having a drink and I was punished publicly and personally. It wasn't so easy growing up in the public eye.'
The impression this offered was hardly helped by some of his decisions. Ferdinand left West Ham a few months after that tabloid exposÃ©, joining Leeds for Â£18m. In sharp contrast to some of his team-mates, Ferdinand attracted few unwanted headlines during his time at Elland Road. But after his good performances at the 2002 World Cup, Ferdinand asked for and secured a Â£30m move to Leeds's hated rivals at Old Trafford. The vitriol he received from Leeds fans seems misplaced, especially as without that Â£30m, a world record for a defender, the club's financial problems would have been even greater.
On 23 September 2003, he left Manchester United's training ground without taking a random drugs test for which he had been selected and of which he had been notified. At the resulting hearing he was banned from playing for eight months. He received the full support of the club and full pay while out of the game but stretched the patience of some United fans by later taking months before finally signing a new four-year contract in August 2005. Feelings were heightened when, on a night out in London that April, he was photographed in two restaurants with Peter Kenyon, the former Manchester United chief executive who had signed him for the club and, by then, was in the same job at Chelsea. Ferdinand maintained that it was a chance meeting, as he had gone to see Zahavi, and Kenyon had happened to be there, but it did not go down well with some United supporters.
How does Ferdinand feel about these reactions? Is he bitter about the eight-month ban for the missed drugs test? 'No, I'm not bitter. Sure, it's time taken from my career that I can never get back, but it doesn't diminish my love for football because it's not football that's done it, it's the people inside the game that's done it and also sometimes myself. Some people look for others to blame, but I don't agree with doing that. If you've made a mistake you look at yourself first and I've done that.' Ferdinand famously claimed he had forgotten about the drugs test and so left Carrington that afternoon to go shopping. After he had sleepily asked me in Uganda if England's memorable 5-1 rout of Germany in 2001 - which he states came during the period when he began to feel an established international - was 'before or after the World Cup?' of 2002, it is easy to imagine this occurring.
'It's not really for me to try and guess,' he continues. 'But I suppose a lot of people say I've a reputation for being flash. And I've seen it written that people think I'm arrogant. And in the paper they see me driving a nice car and that can be viewed in a certain way. Everything came to me fairly quickly in terms of money and fame. I went from being on Â£25 a week to a couple of hundred pounds and was then able to go and buy what I wanted.'
Has the media, then, become worse during his career? 'Much worse. There's always been problems since I started playing for England. Glenn Hoddle had them, he was always looking for ways to combat the press, and it's just escalated. They have also done a lot of good for football - like here in Uganda you can see the benefits in the amount of adulation I receive. The downside is not football-related, because criticism of how you play is inevitable. It's the showbiz side and the intrusions into your family's life. That's why my missus will never do anything in a newspaper, why my baby Lorenz won't be in OK! magazine. They [a newspaper] printed my phone bills once. Who really cares about that? There has to be a line. When I see a photographer in the street and I'm with my family I say, "Don't take the piss, this is down time."'
Three weeks later at a rainy Carrington and Ferdinand, who missed the close of last season and England's games against Estonia and Brazil because of injury, cannot wait for the opening Premier League fixture against Reading at Old Trafford. 'Our acquisitions have been brilliant. Owen Hargreaves, if we'd had someone like him in Milan [where United lost in last season's Champions League semi-final], it could've been a different result,' he says of the England midfielder signed from Bayern Munich for Â£17m. 'I can't wait to see him and Carrick and Scholesy together, and play behind them. And what about Giggsy? He doesn't get the credit - he's won 23 medals. That's just a joke, man, what's going on there? I'm embarrassed to even be on the same pitch as him.' He believes that 'Wayne Rooney has the potential to be better than all of them. The same with Cristiano Ronaldo.'
On occasion the football spear-headed last season by Scholes, Giggs, Rooney and Ronaldo was exhilarating enough to compare with any during Sir Alex Ferguson's era at Old Trafford. Although Chelsea lost only three games, United took a ninth Premier League title by six points, with a record of 83 goals (19 more than Jose Mourinho's team) and a goal difference of plus 56 - factors that helped United secure a crucial four more victories than their west London rivals.
'Chelsea have raised the bar,' admits Ferdinand. 'If you lose two games before Christmas now, you're more or less out of it. I remember Gary Neville and Giggsy saying you used to be able to take more defeats and still win the title.' Asked for his greatest experience in the game, England's 5-1 defeat of Germany is mentioned, but he says nothing compares to winning the title. 'On both occasions it has been the best feeling in the world. It's what you play for the whole season - busting a gut, sweating, the ups and down. You're an emotional wreck, especially when every game means something. During the last two or three months last year it was all cup finals. To emerge from it to say you're the best team in the league is such an emotion.'
Saturday 28 April was a particularly defining and turbulent day of last season. Chelsea and United kicked-off at 12.45. Ferguson's men found themselves 2-0 down after 50 minutes at Everton. At that point, Chelsea were leading Bolton 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. 'I'd gone for a pub lunch with my missus Rebecca,' recalls Ferdinand, who was injured that day. 'We were walking down a long road by a golf course. Someone in a car yelled that we were losing one-nil. By the time we'd got to a newsagent someone else had shouted it was two and I just wanted to get home. Then Kieron Dyer and Darren Fletcher both sent me a text that just said: "WOW!" I thought we were five-nil down. I never watch when I'm not playing, but when I got home the television was on for once. When I saw that we were leading 3-2 and Chelsea were only 2-2 I couldn't believe it.' United added a fourth through Chris Eagles. Chelsea could finish with only a second draw in what became a run of five, the third of which ended their hopes of retaining the title.
Whatever happens during this season, it is good to hear Ferdinand is still so enthusiastic about the game. 'I just love football. When I retire hopefully I'll have the means to build a five-a-side pitch so my mates can play three or four times a week. As long as my knees are all right, that's what I want. We used to say when we were kids on the estate that as long as we could play just one minute of League football in the fourth division we could die happy.'
Retirement, though, is still a long way off for a player now in his peak years. He says Manchester United want to win everything this year as always, but the Premier League comes first. With Anderson, Nani and Carlos Tevez arriving - 'great news' - United are going to be quite frightening at times this season for their rivals who, he says, will be the usual three of Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. But Spurs, he thinks, will not be far behind and West Ham, his brother's club, 'could be a surprise package.'
There is also England. Apart from his enforced absence because of the missed test, Ferdinand has lost his place on one other occasion since establishing himself. In October 2005, a dip in form caused Sven-Goran Eriksson to drop him for a World Cup qualifier against Austria, although when replacement Sol Campbell pulled a hamstring during the game Ferdinand was restored. Now John Terry's regular partner, he has a frank take on England's first match of the new season, the friendly against Germany on 22 August at Wembley. 'I think it's a stupid time to have a game with England. Fifa or whoever it is that decides when games are played don't really take into consideration the matches that are around that period,' he says, reflecting the frustration that some fans will feel at the new Premier League season being interrupted so soon. 'But any England game you want to play and I'm no different from anyone else.'
Then the serious stuff begins. Steve McClaren's team, who are fourth in qualifying for Euro 2008, take on Israel at Wembley on 8 September, then play Russia there four days later. 'Four out of the five games now are at home. No matter who you are playing you would expect to win at least two or three and we need to win four,' Ferdinand says, adding that he is confident England will be in Austria and Switzerland for next summer's finals.
What of his own future? 'Until they kick me out, I want to stay at United. Hopefully I'm going to achieve great things. If you come to United you're joining the biggest club in the world. It's a phenomenon with a great history.' Could he ever become a manager? 'Some days I wake up and think so. Other times I just want a more relaxing life. That's what the foundation and the academy are about - I want to have something that gives longevity because I can't play for ever.'
Kasule told me that his dream for the academy is to produce the first Ugandan footballer to play in the Premier League. East Africa is a vastly untapped area of a continent that is now producing many of the world's finest players. Making it happen could prove an intriguing, possibly lucrative, and definitely challenging journey. Ferdinand knows a little about those.