Nobody knew him. Nobody bothered to get to know him. They saw his face and saw his wealth and saw his ambition and they joined the dots. Nobody is above personal and professional criticism, because nobody is perfect. But Raheem Sterling was being judged on half-truths, myths and unfair stereotypes. And that’s what hurt the most.
Over the last two years, Sterling has found himself caught up in a cultural conflict. Because he was a footballer he was wealthy and famous, and because he was wealthy and famous he was fair game for media scrutiny. But Sterling was targeted even beyond that. He was an unwilling pawn in a media climate clamouring for online clicks and front-page sensations in order to survive, but one that could rely upon a population increasingly obsessed by celebrity culture. If you write it, they will click.
It became a perfect storm. England needed a scapegoat post-Euro 2016, Sterling had shown ambition to engineer his exit from one of the historically biggest clubs in the country for a member of the nouveau riche and he was not in particularly good form for the national team.
And he was black. It may or may not have been a conscious decision (more likely is that editors saw the the success of initial stories about Sterling and mined him thereafter), but Sterling’s skin colour did make a difference. There is a strata of society that sees a young, black person with money and views them as an active threat to their status quo. There’s a second, larger strata for whom the same thing happens subconsciously.
[Thread] a selection of times when our national press have chosen to run stories on Raheem Sterling.
1. The one where Raheem was 'tired'. pic.twitter.com/6K3cHu6r7T
— Adam Keyworth (@adamkeyworth) May 28, 2018
One of the byproducts of this treatment is that stories don’t have to be overtly negative to produce a negative reaction if the audience has been hardwired to treat them as such. That became Sterling’s lot: shopping at a bargain store, eating breakfast, buying something at Greggs, spending a lot of money, spending only a little. Anything he did became apparently newsworthy. Anything apparently newsworthy provoked a negative response.
And suddenly someone in Middle England, who rarely watches the national team play or keeps up with Premier League news, winces and frowns at the very mention of Sterling’s name. “Oh he’s the bad boy one, isn’t he?” Carol says to her colleague in the lunchroom. “And that ghastly tattoo. We don’t need people like that in our team.” And so you have Sterling rated at 5.23 out of 10 for England’s World Cup quarter-final victory over Sweden, a full 0.82 lower than any other England player despite almost every newspaper awarding him a 7 or 8. The reputation of the person drags down the reputation of the player.
After the World Cup in Russia, in part fuelled by the pre-tournament hysteria over a tattoo that caused people to leap to misjudgements, Sterling became the most-discussed footballer since David Beckham post-World Cup 1998 (who was treated abysmally having been sent off against Argentina). Each action and reaction was used as proof of character by people on both sides of the debate who had no intention of changing their mind. Do not underestimate how suffocating that could be to the enthusiasm of youth.
Off the back of that, Sterling has produced the best season of his career. Having Riyad Mahrez join Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva at Manchester City could have spooked him (and plenty were predicting his loss of first-team place), but Sterling’s output has made him undroppable; Aymeric Laporte was the only outfielder with more league starts this season for City. That in itself is astonishing.
The biggest difference – ostensibly at least – is in his confidence. Sterling’s toughest two opponents when struggling for form were time and his own doubts. Conventional wisdom dictates that time is the precious ingredient for the most capable players, but with Sterling it was the opposite. Given seconds to consider his next action, they felt like minutes and Sterling would often flounder. That has been turned on its head under Guardiola’s stewardship. Now people wait for him to score, not miss.
But there’s something interesting about the celebration of Sterling’s form this season: he actually scored and assisted fewer league goals than in 2017/18. Add together his goals and assists in the Premier League and Champions League from this season and last and it’s dead level – 34 vs 34 – but Sterling made more appearances this season.
Any Manchester City supporter, and perhaps even Pep Guardiola – will tell you that Sterling’s performance level has increased, but the jump in praise from some quarters is in part a response to that improvement and in part a reference to his previous unacceptable treatment. Having been hardwired to find fault, suddenly people sought proof of strength.
Like Beckham in 1998, Sterling’s redemption has been underpinned by resolving to work harder and longer beyond his already high levels. Guardiola has poured praise on his commitment to improving and retaining his integral place in City’s starting XI and also maintaining his physical fitness.
That matters, because, again like Beckham, it was Sterling’s professionalism that was most called into question by the limp accusations of bling culture, celebrity lifestyle and flaunting wealth. The one thing they were criticising him for lacking is the one thing he proved most emphatically. Whatever you say I am, that’s what I’m not.
The easier option is to keep quiet. Keep your head down. Play the game. Know your place. Kids like Sterling have heard all the buzz phrases a hundred times before. But then that wouldn’t have changed anything. Racism – overt and subconscious – wins if you change to meet it and it wins if you swallow your tongue.
But Sterling didn’t change. He hasn’t fallen into line to gain acceptance. He has dragged English culture and the media forward to meet him via a period of introspection, not by portraying a sanitised, homogenised Middle England Carol-friendly version of himself. He is unashamedly Raheem Sterling, because there is no shame in being that.
When Sterling spoke out in December 2018, it was on behalf of someone else not in defence of himself. That was crucial, because it told his detractors that their attempts to smear him had not worked. This young man, whose father had been murdered and who had grown up in Maverley, Kingston and St. Raphael’s estate in Wembley was strong enough to ignore dog-whistle diatribe. He can handle your criticism; this is not about self-preservation. But he would not stand by and allow others to be smeared.
There’s a sense here that Sterling’s rise in confidence as a player and person speaking out are symbiotic. He had the confidence to address perceived mistreatment and racism because he was flying on the pitch. He was flying on the pitch because he had owned the criticism and used it as his fuel. It’s not a case of one powering the other, but simultaneously powering each other.
In an interview last week with the Daily Mirror’s John Cross, Sterling insisted that he did not see himself as a role model (although he conceded that his mother would be chuffed by the description). But role model status can be bestowed upon someone as well as claimed by them. Ask any kid at the Ark Elvin Academy in Wembley if they look up to Sterling.
All Sterling’s life he has fought to escape the boxes that people have tried to place him in, despite his youth coaches remembering a humble lad who had dreams of being a star. Now Sterling has his own place, on the top of his game and on top of the game, looking down on those who tried to pull him down.
Virgil van Dijk fully deserved to be named PFA Player of the Year, because nobody changed their team more than him. But nobody did more than Sterling to alter perceptions and change attitudes. This has been his season. Now we know him. Now there are no more dots left to join.