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The private life of Rio Ferdinand

Chris Charles | 12:55 UK time, Friday, 24 April 2009

So I'm just about to interview Rio Ferdinand when he breaks off to take a call from Michael Jackson. Welcome to the world of the Premier League footballer.

The Prince of Pop is ringing to wish Rio good luck for the launch of the player's latest venture - a celebrity-studded online magazine named in honour of his Manchester United shirt number, 'Five'.

When Ferdinand returns he admits: "I was shaking when I got off the phone. It was a real surprise. I'm hoping to interview him for a later edition and he's invited me to one of his concerts to come backstage and speak to him about it.

"The first album I ever owned was Bad, so that says it all. I got the album when I was living on the Friary estate in Peckham, who'd have thought that one day I might be meeting the guy?"
Michael Jackson
Given all the trappings of fame and fortune that accompany the modern-day footballer, Ferdinand is surprisingly grounded. Our 15-minute chat is peppered with references to his modest upbringing and the fortunate position he finds himself in today. A privilege that allows him to have a natter with Jacko and a one-on-one with rapper 50 Cent, who he interviewed for the first edition of the magazine.

"I was quite nervous meeting him," Rio confesses. "But it was great to see a different side, rather than this macho 'I've been shot a few times' image that everyone dwells on.

"Everyone expected me to go for someone like 50 Cent, pigeon-holing me a bit, so it was important to capture another element of him - away from that gangster image - and I think we did that. He was talking about politics and other interests he's got rather than just the obvious, so you got to see a softer side."

Mickey Rourke and Duffy also appear in the launch edition, although Ferdinand couldn't do those interviews himself, and with Jackson seemingly in the bag, I ask him what other big names he would like to talk to. The answer is rather surprising.

"If I could interview anyone in the world it would be the two princes, William and Harry," he answers without hesitation. "I'd love to get their take on the world, because no-one knows how they see it. It would be great to be the first people to do that. Barack Obama would be another one but I think I'd rather interview the princes first, because no-one's got an insight into what they're about."

So has this newly-honed journalistic instinct given him an insight into the world of the hungry hacks who spend their lives chasing him and his fellow-professionals looking for a decent angle?

"Not really. The difference is we're not trying to get an extravagant story, we're trying to get genuine answers to questions that hopefully a lot of other people out there would like to be asking themselves, rather than getting a juicy, crazy story that some media types would like."

The question has clearly touched a raw nerve and you feel a certain degree of sympathy for players who spend their lives being snapped by the paparazzi as they go about their daily lives - an issue which Ferdinand feels has contributed to the common perception that footballers are out of touch with the man on the street.

"There's a bigger divide between the fan and the player nowadays because people see the vast amounts of money players earn as a big problem," he concedes. "And then there's the whole interest in footballers and the way the media are in terms of the derogatory press that is sometimes promoted.

"You've got a story on a player here, mobile phones with makes players clam up and not want to go to certain places because they think 'I'm gonna get camera-ed here by somebody who can earn £500 for giving someone a photo'. It's an automatic defence mechanism that makes people shy away a little bit and that's probably why the divide has come between the fan and the footballer.

"I still go out with my mates to the local pub and sit and have a drink, and sometimes when you get fans coming up and asking for autographs it's great, because that's part and parcel of being a footballer. But when you're with your kids it can be difficult because your kids are losing out (on your attention). The only way to look at it is that if you're not being asked for your autograph then you must be doing rubbish!"
Rio Ferdinand
Looking around the swish members club in the heart of London's banking district which is hosting the launch, I must confess to being more than a little detached from the modern-day footballer. It feels like the place is dripping in gold.

There's a constant flow of champagne, a bevy of gorgeous women and of course the players themselves and their assorted hangers-on. A few have come to show their support to Rio, most notably Ashley Cole and his West Ham namesake, Carlton. It's noticeable that Ashley spends the whole evening surrounded by male friends, just in case someone is lurking with one of those pesky camera phones.

It's certainly a world away from Nigeria, where Ferdinand spent time last summer to promote education to children through football. "That was a very humbling experience that puts everything into perspective in terms of materialistic issues," he says.

"It makes you understand how fortunate you are to be in the position we are when you go there and see the way people live on the other side of the world. In many cases the way they live is a complete contrast to the way we do. It makes you realise that when you're moaning about traffic, or getting the wrong pizza makes you realise we are lucky even to be able to order a pizza."

Ferdinand is keen to return there soon, but knows he cannot give 100% commitment to anything until his footballing days are over, particularly now, aged 30, as he finds himself entering the twilight of his career.

"I've been in the game a long time now and I find myself acting a little bit like a big brother to some of the younger guys," he admits.

"It only seems like yesterday when I was being talked to by the likes of Iain Dowie and Ian Wright at West Ham. I'm now in the same period of my career as they were back then. You evolve into a different person.You've got responsibilites being one of the senior players in the changing room."

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So will he take that one step further and move into management when he eventually retires?

"Sometimes I wake up and think I'd love to be a manager. Other days I'd like to get really into my charity work with my 'Live The Dream' foundation and other days doing something like this in the media. Who knows? I'm not sure.

"But what I really want to do at the moment is concentrate on playing football. That's what I love more than anything else - and that is my true love. If I thought anything else I was doing outside of that would diminish it then I wouldn't do it, but at the moment it's working well."

And with a clutch of honours already under his belt, another Premier League title within touching distance and the small matter of a Champions League double-header with Arsenal coming up, it's hard to disagree.

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