Ledley King luxuriated in the supposition of a palatial footballing future. It was June 2005. The hulking defender had represented England at UEFA EURO 2004. He had not missed a second – or barely a tackle – in Tottenham Hotspur's latest Premier League campaign.
Martin Jol, his club manager, championed him as the best centre-back in the country. Sven-Goran Eriksson, his international coach, believed him capable of nullifying the world's best attackers after witnessing an impenetrable performance in a goalless draw at Manchester United five months earlier. Arsenal's Thierry Henry, then in his irrepressible pomp, described the Londoner as "one the best defenders I've ever played against".
King was indomitable in the air, a masterful timer of tackles, two-footed, and a calm, competent distributor of the ball. His fan club was swelling. At 24, he appeared destined to perform on the sport's grandest stages.
Two years down the road, however, that future had seemingly unravelled. A fractured bone in his foot had denied King the chance to go to Germany 2006, and he played just four games during the 2007/08 Premier League season due to a knee injury. It was one that was chronic. It was one that forced King to stop training properly. It was one that would, consensually, prevent him achieving what a player of his commitment and class should.
King the fantasist still dreamed of pulling on an England jersey at the FIFA World Cup™. King the realist was gradually, grudgingly contemplating premature retirement.
However, despite the physical pain, and the inability to train or play two matches within quick succession, King stubbornly refused to hang up his boots. The Tottenham captain duly enjoyed a decent 2008/09 campaign and, although he only appeared in exactly half of his side's games last term, when he was on the pitch, he excelled.
"What amazes me is that he doesn't train, but then plays as if it is so easy," said former England midfielder Jamie Redknapp after King captained Spurs to an improbable fourth-placed finish, and a place in next season's UEFA Champions League, at the expense of big-spending Manchester City and Liverpool. "He is like a magnet for the ball, a thoroughbred of a defender, the best centre-half in the country."
Redknapp – son of King's manager at Tottenham, Harry – campaigned for the defender, who failed to play a single South Africa 2010 qualifier, to be taken to the tournament, although he accepted it was a long shot. "It is going to be hard to pick both Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King," he said. "If one – or both of them – either breaks down or can't play back-to-back matches, it will leave the centre of defence exposed."
That hypothesis did not dissuade Fabio Capello, who surprisingly named King alongside Ferdinand in England's provisional 30-man squad for the FIFA World Cup. The Italian then afforded the 29-year-old a chance to stake a claim for a place on the plane in a friendly against Mexico. King seized it, scoring a header in a 3-1 victory. He was consequently named in the final 23.
That was not King’s last step up the England ladder. An injury to Ferdinand – coincidentally a knee injury – has left him in line to partner John Terry, whom he played alongside as a schoolboy in east London, at the heart of the 1966 champions' defence.
So, can King, unable to train properly, cope with the prospect of playing seven matches in less than 29 days? "I believe I can," he told FIFA. "I'm doing everything I can. The medical team here and the manager have been great with their support, and have given me the best preparation and every chance to do that."
As for his solitary preparation, King believes the prize validates the punishment. "I love football and know that at the end of not such an enjoyable week, there's a game. That's where my preparation goes to – to making the game. I'm normally in the gym or the swimming pool, working on fitness.
"There is not a day goes by where you don't think about the knee," he added. "It's something I have to deal with. Every time I get up and walk, there are restrictions with it. There were times I wondered whether my time was running out, but I wouldn't say I doubted whether I would ever get back in an England shirt.
"I think I’ve shown this season that I can play games in quick succession. However many minutes I get I believe I'll be ready. I can guarantee is that I will give 100 per cent. I feel I can perform at the highest level."