Like all major competitions that mark the pinnacle of their respective sports, the UEFA Champions League is an unforgiving contest. It’s filled with euphoric highs and dismal lows that are only heightened during the tournament’s knockout phase — annually, over the course of approximately three months, 16 teams from eight groups battle for a chance to be crowned champions of Europe. This year, as Europe’s elite football clubs continue in their fight for a ticket to the final at the famed San Siro in Milan, Italy, we’re reminded of all the magical moments that separate this prestigious competition from the rest in world football.
A memorable run includes that of Leeds United, in which one Rio Ferdinand put a thundering header past Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna, helping a club from West Yorkshire overcome improbable odds to reach the semi-finals of the 2000-2001 UEFA Champions League — a moment that still stands as one of the greatest underdog stories to come out from English football.
Having also captained Manchester United to a Champions League final victory in 2008, Rio Ferdinand understands what it takes to win a trophy that eluded greats such as Diego Maradona. As one of England’s most decorated footballers of all time, Ferdinand undoubtedly stacks the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens up there with his 20-plus club trophies that he won over the course of his illustrious career, which spanned nearly 20 years.
Standing in as “The Substitute” for Heineken’s #ChampionTheMatch, which encourages supporters to make their match night more legendary, we got the chance to sit down with Ferdinand to talk about how football has changed now that he’s one year removed, his unique perspective on the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry, and his picks for this year’s champions of Europe as well as the Barclays Premier League.
What’s the main difference between Manchester United’s team now and the time when you were there?
We obviously had a manager in Sir Alex that had been at the club for a long time and had been able to shape a winning mentality that ran through from the youth team to the coaching staff to the first team players. Following on from him was always going to be a challenge but the reality of the size of the task has probably taken a few people by surprise.
What the club needs now is stability and some truly world-class signings as the rest of the league is getting stronger and stronger. Man Utd. are not at the level I expect them to be at.
Has football in general changed at all in your brief time away from the game?
Not in the year I’ve been away but the game is almost unrecognizable from when I started out. When I was young your sole focus was developing your game and learning from the first team players in the hope that you could make it. We now see players as young as 17 on massive deals, which was unheard of when I was a kid.
Regarding this year’s Champions League, who has stood out for you and who do you think can win it?
I can’t see past a Barcelona team with Messi in it. Their front three is incredible and arguably the best the world has ever seen. Anyone who draws them in the next round is going out.
Bayern are also incredible and would be my favorites if Barca didn’t have Messi.
With Lionel Messi picking up yet another Ballon d’Or is the Messi vs. Ronaldo debate settled?
The numbers that those guys are rattling up are insane. Ronaldo is a massive player with virtually no weaknesses in his game and Messi’s style of play is so unique and when he’s on his game, which he usually is; he’s unstoppable. The main difference between them is that Barca is set up for Messi, whereas Real are a team of individuals.
In your time playing with Ronaldo, what made him stand out from the rest of the squad?
Like everyone in that team he worked very hard and when you add that level of dedication to natural ability, you’re always going to have a pretty special player. The incredible thing was seeing his game develop from being a good winger to a great forward. Year on year, he added new facets to his game, be it heading, his left foot or his pure physicality, and every time he did this it took him to a new level.
Who is the best player you ever played against?
Ronaldo (retired Brazilian footballer) came to Old Trafford in 2003 with Real Madrid for a UEFA Champions League Quarter Final second leg and he was incredible. He scored a hat-trick, was subbed midway through the second half, and received a standing ovation. His pace, power and skill are well known, however, his movement might go unnoticed but up close it was incredible. I’d never seen anyone make space to receive the ball and make a goal scoring opportunity the way that he did.
How do you rate England’s chances in the upcoming European Championships?
Not great. We have some promising young players and I would love to see them play with freedom and belief this summer but we shouldn’t be expecting much more of them. I am looking for performances over incredible results.
Who are the players to watch during the tournament?
This could be the tournament when Paul Pogba shows the world exactly why all the best clubs in Europe are after his signature. He was at United when I was there and the club had huge hopes for him. Unfortunately, for United things didn’t work out and since joining Juventus he has been immense.
Who do you think will win the Premier League this year?
After being questioned all season, Leicester City look like they could actually do it. I wouldn’t bet against Tottenham or Man City, but if Leicester win the league it will be one of the greatest stories in football.
Is it still the best league in the world?
I think it’s the best league in but we don’t necessarily have the best teams. We have the best atmosphere at grounds and it’s the most competitive league from top to bottom, but the reason why we’re not dominating in Europe is because the Spanish and German leagues have standout teams.