Steven Gerrard is one of England’s 'golden generation' of footballers, a group, including Frank Lampard, John Terry and David Beckham, seen as the country’s best chance of winning a major international tournament for the first time since 1966.
The 29-year-old midfielder has lifted the FA Cup, UEFA Champions League, League Cup and UEFA Cup in his time at Liverpool, where he has become a legend among the Reds fans as their 'Captain Fantastic'. However, the Anfield favourite has yet to taste glory at international level. Having qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ with a near-perfect record of nine wins from ten games, Gerrard is out to put that right.
Here, he talks to FIFA.com about learning from what happened in Germany in 2006, the pressure of taking part in a penalty shoot-out and the competition England will face in the group stage in South Africa.
FIFA.com: Steven, you missed a penalty as England lost a shoot-out to Portugal at Germany 2006. What did you learn from that experience?
Steven Gerrard: I think, having missed the penalty, I’ll probably be a bit more composed next time and take my time a bit more. I’ll work that little bit harder in training to make sure I know what I’m going to be doing. It all happened really fast in 2006 and I felt after the penalties that I should have taken my time more.
What goes through your mind when you step up to take a spot-kick?
It is massive pressure, but that’s what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to try and handle that pressure. I didn’t handle it in 2006, so if I’m put in that situation again I will try and deal with the pressure a lot better. But it’s difficult, it’s not like taking a normal penalty in practice – you’ve got so much responsibility. You know all the fans back home are watching and when you’re tired, when you’re under so much pressure, that’s when mistakes happen and that’s what happened to me in 2006.
You mentioned being tired in a penalty shoot-out. What about in extra-time? What happens to the body and the mind when a game reaches that stage?
You’re very tired. You’ve run out of energy, you’re desperate for the game to stop, but you need to try and remain focused and concentrate right to the end. It’s very difficult, because at this level a game is very quick, so after 90 minutes you’ve ran out of energy. [Extra-time] is when lot of mistakes come. When the body and the mind are really tired you see teams make mistakes, the game becomes a lot slower. Obviously, the two teams are desperate not to lose the game, so everyone becomes a bit edgy.
On to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. What was the highlight of the qualifying campaign?
I don’t think there was one moment, but if you consider the overall campaign, we were very consistent. We became a very difficult team to beat and we put in some excellent performances, but the most important thing is that we still keep working hard to improve ahead of the World Cup. We’ve still got a long way to go.
How do you think Fabio Capello will cope at his first FIFA World Cup?
He’ll bring many qualities to the team. He’s a winner; he’s got an unbelievable amount of experience and has enjoyed a remarkable amount of success. He’s transmitting a winning mentality to the team, so fingers crossed that will stand us in good stead for the tournament.
What are your responsibilities within the team? What does England manager Fabio Capello want from you?
The manager wants me to play with freedom, to express myself. It’s starting from the left, but he doesn’t want me to stay in the one position. He wants me to move around and cause the opposition problems by getting into areas where they don’t want me to be.
You are the club captain at Liverpool, but vice-captain with England. What’s the difference between when you are captain and when you are not? Is the pressure off?
Not at all, it’s exactly the same. When I play for England, when I’m not captain, I still approach it exactly the same as if I am captain and I try and go out there and lead by example, so I can help my team-mates and do the right thing. So, although it is nice to be captain and it’s a privilege, you approach the game exactly the same with an armband on or off.
England expects this team to win the FIFA World Cup. Does that weigh heavily on your shoulders?
As players, we have to deal with the expectations and the pressure of playing for England. The supporters and media are very passionate about the country and a lot is expected of us. It’s important that we, as players, cope with that in the best way we can.
Some people are saying England’s group in South Africa will be easier than some of the others. What do you think?
We are pleased with the draw and we’re very confident that we can qualify from the group, but at the same time we have to show the teams respect. Every team has done fantastically well to get to the World Cup and all three teams against us in the group [Algeria, Slovenia and the USA] are desperate to beat England. We know they’re going to play the game of their lives, so we need to make sure we perform well to win.
When it comes to the USA game, you will have played against some of their players in the English Premier League, such as Hull City’s Jozy Altidore. What do you think of him and how will the team deal with him?
He’s a big, strong centre-forward. He likes to run behind and cause defenders a lot of problems with his strength and his height, so the England defenders will have to play well to contain him. We have fantastic defenders in England, but we need to keep him really quiet, because if we give him time and space he will hurt the team.
Looking back to past FIFA World Cups, which players did you look up to when you were a child and which players do you admire the most?
My favourite player of all time is Zinedine Zidane, the [former] French captain. Just to see him play – the way he moves, the way he controls the ball, the way he passes – is an absolute privilege and there’s so much you can learn from that guy, he’s a genius with the ball. From an England point of view, there is Gazza [Paul Gascoigne]. I like watching gifted players who are skilful, and Gazza is probably one of the most skilful English players there’s even been, so I would pick those two.
Paul Gascoigne played in the FIFA World Cup in Italy 1990 alongside Gary Lineker, who won the Golden Boot with six goals in Mexico in 1986 as well. What do you think of him as a player and his playing style?
His playing style was all about scoring goals. He used to pick up the right positions, really close to the goal, and score a lot in the area. To me, Gary Lineker is a legend. I grew up watching him and I loved it when he was knocking in the goals in 1986 and 1990. You’ve got to take your hat off to him, because scoring goals is the most difficult thing to do in football and he had a very good instinct to be in the right place at the right time.