The running joke of England’s unexpected, exhilarating run to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 was that Gareth Southgate must be doing a terrific job: the only thing a section of the media – who always need an England axe to grind – could find to moan about was Raheem Sterling’s presence in the side.
That’s Raheem Sterling, a player Pep Guardiola (clearly no match for those football minds in the press box) deemed good enough for a starting spot in his attack. He was, alongside Harry Kane, one of only two elite-class players in that squad; that’s the guy to drop from your starting XI.
Admittedly, Sterling wasn’t quite replicating his Manchester City form for England, although he was the Three Lions' best attacking player in the quarter-final win over Sweden. Yet the criticism of Sterling has never really been about his play. It’s more concerned with his tattoos, his car, his breakfast, his kitchen and sundry other things that most sensible people probably consider none of their business.
Now, the tables have turned. Sterling – with eight goals and four assists in his last eight England games – has began showing his class for his country. At the same time, there has been an ongoing backlash against the repugnant tone of the coverage of a young, rich, high-profile, black athlete.
So now the story has turned on its head. It’s the Raheem redemption tale; Sterling the beloved hero. A GQ interview in July opened with a question on how he’s gone “from ‘the hated one’ to the loved one” – and whether he’d planned that transition.
But that narrative is, in the parlance of the dressing room, total bollocks. Sterling should never have been a villain to begin with. Talk of redemption, or of winning people over, glosses past the crucial fact that he didn’t do anything to deserve such censure.
We love a narrative arc around England footballers. David Beckham getting sent off in a World Cup, redeeming himself against Greece; public pariah one moment, public hero the next.
However, in tolerating that story around Sterling, we’re implicitly accepting that he did something to deserve his negative publicity. Purely because a portion of the media – and public – have had to lay down their dog whistles due to his exceptional form on the pitch, and the evidence that he’s a perfectly decent person off it.
Liverpool fans are allowed to dislike him, of course; a player who left their club and signed for a rival outfit. It’s perfectly fine to take against a player for standard football reasons: they did your club in, in some fashion, great or small.
Yet for those people – understandably and justifiably – lauding Sterling for everything from speaking out intelligently against racism to giving his shirt or boots to young fans, it’s important to remember some key facts. He didn’t ask to be put in this position of a polarising public figure. He didn't deserve to be either. He can speak on social issues as much or as little as he chooses to, just like any other high-profile footballer.
Putting him on a pedestal sets a dangerous precedent. Because when he makes some mistake, as all humans do – from going down easily in the box to some perceived off-field scandal – he deserves to be clobbered down just as much as he asked to be put up there.
The danger is, with all good intention, thrusting too much on Sterling’s shoulders just to counteract the stomach-churning coverage he’s endured. The player himself seemed taken aback when told a BBC debate had seen him compared to Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali (“I don’t know about that!” his understandable reply).
Sterling is a public figure, but how much of a cultural and social impact he has is down to him. And absolutely nobody should be talking about redemption for Raheem Sterling without remembering that he did absolutely nothing to deserve his split reaction in the first place.
Read the full interview with Raheem Sterling in the Autumn 2019 issue of FourFourTwo magazine, out in shops and available digitally from next week (October 22). We also head to the Arctic Circle, meet Lazio’s ultras, discover how to make Real Madrid and Barcelona great again, get our chat on with John Barnes and much, much more. You don’t want to miss it!
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