I can still hear it ringing in my ears. It became a bit of a ritual. The catchphrase that dominated an entire summer in school while the planet’s best players were balling out at the 2006 World Cup.
Nutmeg in the lunchtime kickabout? “You just got merked!”
Happy slap in the corridor? “You just got merked!”
Switching the teacher’s whiteboard pen for a permanent marker? “You just got merked!”
For a short period of time, Rio Ferdinand dominated the playground and he did it with a one-off ITV special, ‘Rio Ferdinand’s World Cup Wind-Ups’, which aired before England played their first game of that summer’s tournament.
Inspired by a generation of no holds barred candid camera prank shows including Jackass, Dirty Sanchez and – most flagrantly – Punk’d, ‘World Cup Wind-Ups’ saw Rio mess with a handful of ‘Golden Generation’ Three Lions including David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole.
It was never going to win any awards, but it was a product of its time, and remains significant for marking down Rio Ferdinand as an athlete who had professional and creative ambitions that stretched way beyond the football pitch.
While Rio was on hosting duties, he also received an executive producer credit for the show, with ‘World Cup Wind Ups’ actually being a product of Rio’s then-new production agency, Next Generation TV & Film. Things like this just didn’t happen back in 2006.
In 2021 fans still get tetchy about Hector Bellerin dropping collabs with highly respected and credible streetwear brands, while some journalists even have to give praise to Marcus Rashford and his off-pitch exploits through gritted teeth. The game is more progressive now than ever but so many people still believe ‘footballers should stick to football’.
Rio was brave enough to put that theory in a blender as far back as ‘06 – and we need to give him praise for it.
While ‘World Cup Wind-Ups’ and “you got merked!” is now 15 years old and largely faded from collective memory, the world was reawakened to Rio’s power and influence in the media space as recently as last week.
His ‘Vibe With FIVE’ podcast with Ravel Morrison was one of the most newsworthy, revealing, and profound interviews you’ll ever see with a pro player.
Ravel – a self declared introvert who doesn’t do much media – has always been spoken about in hushed tones. Infamously heralded as “the best talent” Sir Alex Ferguson had ever seen, the 28-year-old has accumulated a mythical tag by ITK fans as the best player of all-time who didn’t really make it.
As unfair as that seems for a talent who’s played in the Premier League, Serie A, Eredivisie and Liga MX, it’s how people have always spoken about him. And the quieter he’s been, the more clubs he’s passed through, the more ex-United players who speak about him as the one that got away…the larger his mystery grows.
Rio’s podcast finally blew the lid on any preconceptions that existed around a player who still has ambitions to play at the top level, and it reminded us all how football coverage should be done.
There was no fakery. No soft questions. No script. No agendas. No hot takes.
It was an honest conversation built on respect and mutual understanding. Rio understands Ravel’s background, he’s been in similar shoes, and knows his football.
As a result, we saw Ravel be vulnerable. We saw him speak about the struggles he had as a young kid and the responsibility he felt to provide for his family. We saw him speak about the pressure of being a young player in the public eye with the weight of the world on your shoulders.
It’s the sort of conversation we’re not going to see from Geoff Shreeves at full-time. We’re unlikely to see it from the traditional press. We’re certainly never going to see it from Graeme Souness inside the Sky Sports studio.
For a long time we’ve heard complaints that our athletes and our media need to take their cues from the United States: “We need more personality, we need more characters, we need more emotion.”
That only works when players complicity trust the media. When they can be themselves without fear of judgement, with a recognition that what they’re saying is being understood and respected by those on the other end of the line.
That’s what Rio managed to do with Ravel, and it’s what he’s done with every media exploit he’s ever done – he’s unashamedly been himself and let people see who he is.
He took the piss and had fun with ‘World Cup Wind Ups’. He innovated and took risks by launching his own digital magazine in 2009. He’s not been afraid to be passionately pro-Man United in his punditry on BT Sport. He opened his heart and soul in BBC documentaries about coping with bereavement. He backed his brother, Anton, to tell his own vital story about racism in football last year (produced by Rio’s New Era Productions).
He’s earned respect with his actions in the media, and Ravel Morrison paid that respect back when he sat down on his podcast last week.
As Jose once said, “respect, respect, respect”.
It’s what storytelling should be built on. The sooner the rest of the media learns that, the quicker they can catch up with Rio and create the sort of content we all want to see more of.
The game needs to respect Rio for the trail he’s always blazed off the pitch.