England’s past three tournaments have been nothing short of amazing for the “Three Lions”, with the semi-final at the 2018 FIFA World Cup being followed by the final at the UEFA EURO 2020 and the quarter-final at Qatar 2022.
Sure, England is still searching for their first major international trophy since 1966, when they won the FIFA World Cup at home, but the fundamentals are there, the generation they are now using is one of the best in history and nearly all the positions on the pitch have two or even three players of the same value competing for the chance to start the game.
Yet in the midfield, which is the department always touted to be the key of the game, England is excellently represented. And it is a 23-year-old stalwart who is shining there, a player touted to be the future captain of the “Three Lions”, one that could have had a totally different career path, where he was to follow his first instinct.
Declan Rice is no stranger to bitter disappointment and loves a challenge, especially after being released from the Chelsea academy, where he enrolled aged seven. Rice stayed at Cobham – a state-of-the-art academy, one of the best, if not the best in England – for seven years, but eventually was cut when he was 14 years old.
“I used to go to Chelsea to watch games as a young kid,” explained Rice. “I joined them when I was seven but was released at 14 so it did mean something special to play against them,” said Rice after he featured for West Ham United against his former team, as the captain of the “Hammers”.
Now standing at 1.85m tall, Rice was short as a kid, with a growth spurt affecting his mechanics and running style. It proved too much for Chelsea, who cut their losses and never tried to explain why.
“I’m a big lad now but back then I was quite tiny,” he says. “Then I started going through a huge growth spurt … Suddenly I wasn’t moving in the right way. I was like Bambi on ice,” joked the England midfielder.
Yet this made a huge mark on Rice’s career and especially his motivation, as he vowed to come back stronger, after the first resounding “no” he heard in his life.
“I never got the reason why I was released. When we tried to find out they told us to come in for a meeting, which was then cancelled. I was very close to my mum and dad, we did everything together, and I still remember the massive shock when I came home from school. I was thinking it would be something about when I could go full-time, and my dad said I was released. I cried my eyes out for about an hour,” said Rice for “The Guardian”.
It prompted a big change for Rice, who stayed in London, but still had to change homes, as it made more sense. Yet he felt homesick, missing his parents, even if football was getting better and better.
In only three years, he was promoted to the senior team and since that moment, the iconic number 41 shirt has been donned by Rice at West Ham, who has 215 matches and 11 goals for the “Hammers”.
His excellent skills prompted England to intervene, even if Rice had already made his debut in three friendly matches for Ireland, as his grandparents are from Cork. While being touted as a potential captain for Ireland, Rice switched allegiances and pledged his future for England in 2018, after the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
“I remember watching the Panama game, the Tunisia game, Sweden game. It was incredible. The singing before the game, the national anthem. Just being a part of it. I was a fan for that tournament so to be part of this tournament is unbelievable. Obviously growing up watching England in tournaments as well, you just feel the proper buzz, the effects and the desire of the country for the players to do well,” said Rice back then.
He slotted in the team and was never left out, having already played 39 matches for England at only 23 years old. While the disappointment of the exit in the quarter-finals at Qatar 2022, after a 1-2 loss against France, might be huge, England’s future looks set.
The future looks bright for Rice, even if he needs a change of scenery. At West Ham, it is difficult to fight for trophies and the midfielder wants more.
“I’ve been playing consistently well for my club and I feel like I really want to keep pushing. I see my friends here, who are playing Champions League and for big trophies. You only get one career and at the end, you want to look back at what you’ve won and the biggest games you’ve played in. I really want to do that,” said Rice during a press conference at Qatar 2022.
His transfer might command €100 million, becoming the largest sum paid in history for a West Ham player. But he will still be the same Declan Rice, a captain in the making for England.