Rio Ferdinand is not an emotional man — which is not to say he is not friendly or kind.
He is sweetness from the moment I arrive: making me coffee in a magnificent kitchen he seems unfamiliar with; worrying where we’ll be comfortable to chat — “Is here OK? Would you prefer there?”; offering me a lift to the train station afterwards, and nattering on the way about his girlfriend’s dog. It’s just that those “touchy-feely kind of soft emotions” have never come naturally to him. As he states plainly in his book: “People have called me cold all my life.”
This makes it especially startling that he has written (with the help of the journalist Decca Aitkenhead) a book that is an achingly raw and emotional account of his grief after losing his wife. Rebecca Ferdinand was first treated for breast cancer in 2013. It returned aggressively in 2015, metastasising to her liver and bones. She died within weeks, aged just 34, leaving Ferdinand behind with their three children: Lorenz, Tate and Tia, who were then nine, six and four.
The BBC documentary that he made about her death, Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad, was watched by 6m people when it aired in March and has been seen by millions more on catch-up. I imagine, like me, everyone cried. There is something uniquely devastating about watching a man known for his tough sportsmanship howl like a wounded child. The book is equally unbearable at times. Ferdinand recounts how he told his children their mother was not coming home and tears streamed down their faces as they wailed: “Why? Why? Why?” He tells how, paralysed by his inability to help them, he looked out of the hospital window begging the universe: “Could someone please help me?” And how he held his wife in his arms as she died.
Worse is hearing how Ferdinand’s children tackled grief. He buys them bottles of Rebecca’s Hermès perfume, which Tate drenches his bedroom in. When they chose Rebecca’s favourite songs to play at her funeral, they asked if they could dance along in the church, like their mum would have. “If Rebecca’s death had been my loss alone, I think I could have found a way to cope,” he writes, but “when I watched my kids lose their mother, and was helpless to comfort them or know what they needed — that was more than I could bear.” Against his instinct to retreat into himself, he forged his way through the documentary in order “to help me help them”.
The Ferdinand family lives hidden at the edge of London. “A gated community inside a gated community,” the taxi driver says, dropping me off outside a vast modern house worth millions. It is both indicative of the privacy Ferdinand values and testament to the success of a boy who grew up on a Peckham council estate and become one of England’s greatest footballers. He is a former England captain, and was the world’s most expensive defender when Manchester United signed him, at 24, for £30m.
Image: LINDA BROWNLEE/CONTOUR