Ashley Cole will win his 100th England cap next week, taking his place alongside six of the most revered figures our football-obsessed nation has produced.
When he steps out against Brazil at Wembley, Cole's name will be added to those of Peter Shilton, David Beckham, Sir Bobby Moore, Sir Bobby Charlton, Billy Wright and Steven Gerrard—all of them football institutions, men who have transcended bitter club rivalries to win our respect.
But Cole is a different case entirely. Large swathes of the English public revile him. The Chelsea fullback, for all his consistency and despite the fact that he is among the best footballers of his generation, is a man that many England fans have no love for whatsoever.
As if by design, Cole has choreographed his dance to unpopularity quite expertly.
In his autobiography, he famously told of how he "nearly crashed his car," after being offered £55,000/week at Arsenal in 2006. "Cashley Cole" was born, and off he ran to Roman Abramovich's filthy-rich Chelsea with the searing hatred of Gunners fans burning the backs of his heels.
Then came the unveiling of "loverat" Cole. Following in Beckham's footsteps, he married a pop star in Cheryl Tweedy, and for a while they were even seen as rather appealing together. Then Cole cheated on her, with his hairdresser no less. Sixty-million English people tutted in mutual disgust.
That was 2008. Since then we've had more accusations of affairs, the case of Cole shooting an intern with an air rifle and Cole calling the FA a "bunch of t**ts" on Twitter after his evidence in the John Terry racism trial was called into question.
We can only assume he didn't hire Beckham's PR people.
In fact, watching Beckham captivate the gathered media in Paris on Thursday brought the careers of the two men into stark focus. By football ability and their respective records, there is not a great deal between them.
|David Beckham||115 England caps, 6 Premier League titles, 2 FA Cup wins, 1 La Liga title, 2 MLS Cups, 1 Champions League title|
99 England caps, 3 Premier League titles, 7 FA Cup wins,1 Champions League title
But while Beckham is still, at 37 and a faded force, talked of as a player England fans would like to see back, there are an increasing number who want the 32-year-old Cole out of the starting lineup. In an October 2012 poll by the Telegraph, 61 percent of readers said they would chose Everton's Leighton Baines over Cole for England.
In fairness, Baines is on fire. But the anti-Cole movement is as much about his unpopularity as it is about his performances for Chelsea. His form hasn't suffered a noticeable decline and his vast experience could not be more relevant as England try to cement their qualification for World Cup 2014.
If Cole was popular, the conversation would be whether he and Baines could play together on the left flank. If Beckham wasn't, the thought of him returning to England's colours would probably seem ridiculous.
Thankfully, England manager Roy Hodgson won't be swayed by public disapproval. And if we're to believe what he's saying, Cole may very well be the most misunderstood footballer in his ranks. Said Hodgson, as per Fox News:
Every player has the right to be true to their own feelings, and his is that he will do his talking on the field. He doesn't want to give lots of interviews, he wants to be judged as a pure footballer.
I for one respect that wholeheartedly and have found him to be an excellent professional and a very enthusiastic and important member of the group who I'm looking forward to working with him for a period of time to come.
Does that mean Cole doesn't care what people think of him? Or that he's given up on proving them wrong? Or maybe he's just decided the kind of effort Beckham puts into his public image is best saved for his performance on the football field.
Cole has represented England 99 times, with fierce pride and with his every sinew focused on the task at hand. His bad performances have been few and far between, and his good ones often go unnoticed. He's often been England's best player on the field.
We're all flawed. It's time for the English public to lead by example and forgive Ashley Cole.