One day soon Raheem Sterling may be awarded a knighthood. British governments are prone to performative, populist gestures where their successful sports stars are concerned. Seven years ago, the winger’s England career was in jeopardy. Like Sir David Beckham, Sterling has made the journey from pariah to hero. Victory over Italy at Wembley in the Euro 2020 final on Sunday would confirm the Manchester City winger’s status as a national treasure.
The low point in Sterling’s time as an England player came when Roy Hodgson told the world that the youngster – he was still a teenager – had said he was too tired to play for the national side in a Euro 2016 qualifier away to Estonia. If that was not bad enough, Sterling got straight off the plane and went to a nightclub, where he was captured on camera by a rapacious tabloid newspaper. The glee with which the media and public turned on him was unedifying. He was still playing for Liverpool and he was booed at stadiums across the country.
It was all based on a misunderstanding. Beckham was demonised because he was sent off in a 1998 World Cup last 16 game against Argentina after lashing out at Diego Simeone. The reaction was appalling, but Beckham’s mistake was clear and played out live before an audience of millions on TV. His manager and team-mates rallied around him. Sterling merely told one of the England staff that his legs felt heavy after training. The most generous interpretation is that Hodgson misunderstood. Even so, when the England manager went public about the situation it left the player exposed to widespread anger. It could have broken lesser men.
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The hostility towards Sterling also evoked comparisons with John Barnes. Both men were born in Jamaica and have had their loyalty to the England side questioned. Barnes never won over the Wembley crowd. Sterling now has them eating out of his hand.
At the age of 26, Sterling is fulfilling his potential and is finally getting the appreciation he deserves. The boy who grew up within sight of Wembley was plucked away from Queens Park Rangers by Liverpool when he was just 15 amid huge expectations. Settling on Merseyside was not easy. He was bullied at the school he attended – where the pupils were overwhelmingly white – until a local kid who supported Liverpool found out and had a word with the bully. Sterling was unaware and just happy to be left alone. Adapting to life up north was not easy.
There was turmoil, too, in his professional life. Brendan Rodgers’ shenanigans in his first transfer window as manager left the team short of forwards. The original plan under Kenny Dalglish, Rodgers’ predecessor, was to nurse Sterling along, blooding him gently into the side. Instead he was thrust into the action more often than was wise. Again he coped.

'I've blocked the outside world off' - Sterling

There were problems looming. Sterling’s contract was designed for a youngster coming through the ranks, a bit-part player learning his trade. Now he found himself a front-line team member, earning less than half the salary of senior colleagues and a quarter of the wage of the highest-paid player at the club. It rankled. It did not affect his performance – even when Rodgers deployed him as a wing back – but Liverpool’s refusal to give him anything like parity with the often-injured Daniel Sturridge caused an unbridgeable breach.
Sterling and his representatives did not handle the situation well – the club were able to play the ‘greedy’ card – but Anfield’s intransigence forced English football’s hottest property out of the door and into City’s arms.
The forward has grown at the Etihad. After games, the players were given printouts that break down their performance, highlighting weak areas. Sterling studied his assiduously. He was aware that his crossing and goalscoring needed to be improved and he worked on these areas. The naysayers still found fault but he was getting better and better.
Still, the widespread view was that Sterling was a bling-addicted dilettante. Hodgson’s inappropriate comment hung around and the press frequently portrayed him as a symbol of conspicuous consumption in football. This false image created ugly consequences. During a game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in December 2018, a fan leant over the fence and abused Sterling, appearing to use a racist term. The supporter was banned for life by Chelsea, who concluded there was a racial element to the invective and Sterling spoke up, accusing the media of “fuelling racism.” He had found his best form on the pitch, now he found a voice off it.

England's forward Raheem Sterling greets the fans after their win in the UEFA EURO 2020 semi-final football match between England and Denmark at Wembley Stadium in London on July 7, 2021

Image credit: Getty Images

There were – and are – plenty of people who resent Sterling and his England team-mates like Marcus Rashford speaking about political and social issues. Both were products of disadvantaged backgrounds and understand the impact of bigotry on their own lives and those of others. Some resent the likes of Sterling not only because they are rich but because they care. The winger has not quite silenced his critics – listen to the catcalling when England players take the knee to highlight their opposition to discrimination – but he is so good that even the most one-eyed observer cannot deny his influence.
This is Sterling’s moment. After the disappointment of City’s 1-0 defeat by Chelsea in the Champions League final in May, he is more determined than ever to secure the Henri Delaunay trophy for England.
Whatever happens at Wembley, he will be a significant contender for the Ballon d’Or. And if Gareth Southgate’s side beat Italy, Sterling will be near the head of the queue when the British government’s Honours List is announced. That’s not bad for a man who was supposed to be too tired to do his national service.
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