“Does anyone in the room actually think Sterling was ill-advised to tattoo a gun on his leg?” asked The Sun’s Shaun Custis, entirely misjudging the mood of a group that had gathered to talk about diversity – or the lack of it – in sports media. The answer was a resounding ‘no’ from those who had read and understood that Raheem Sterling‘s tattoo was an entirely personal tribute to his murdered father.
Angry questions rained like poison-tipped bullets as Custis repeatedly denied that race was a factor in their reporting of this or any other story. But here he was – four months and thousands of angry column words in the wake of that pre-World Cup witch-hunt – still claiming that Sterling had brought the media reaction upon himself.
The details of Sterling’s treatment by this nation’s right-wing media have been chronicled here and elsewhere; all you really need to know is that he has never managed to spend exactly the right amount of money, facing recrimination for spending both too little and too much. He is both thrifty and bling-tastic. A tight-wad and a flash get. Meanwhile, Phil Foden was lauded for his kindness in buying ‘his mum’ a £2m house while still a teenager. White boys might not be able to jump, but they can spend their money as they damn well please.
It’s unlikely Sterling is aware of this week’s angry exchange at a fringe diversity event, but he is certainly aware of his own negative portrayal in the press. He is wary enough never to mention race but as he wrote in his touching Players’ Tribune column: ‘There’s a perception in certain parts of the media that I love ‘bling’. I love diamonds. I love to show off. I really don’t understand where that comes from. Especially when I bought my mum a house, it was unbelievable what some people were writing. I think it’s really sad that people do that. They hate what they don’t even know.’
We hope Sterling does hear about this week’s angry exchange at a fringe diversity event because he will then at least know that for every journalist who tries to justify criticism of his lifestyle based on Instagram videos, presumptions and stereotypes, there are others in the media trying to drown out the noise. It may make him feel a little less lonely on those days when he wonders how a Premier League title winner with 53 top-flight goals and 44 England caps could attract quite so much derision from within his own nation’s fanbase and media.
This week’s incredulous reaction to reported and repeated interest from Real Madrid is unsurprising; why would the European champions want
England’s most talented player such a wastrel?
“We’ll do our effort to make him feel we count on him. And we count on him,” says Pep Guardiola, who has transformed Sterling from a winger mocked for a lack of end product into a goal poacher mocked for a lack of finishing ability (while still somehow scoring 23 goals in a season). The Manchester City boss is clearly baffled by the lack of respect afforded to Sterling, whose still-tender age hits you like a wave when you see him listed as the clear favourite to be named PFA Young Footballer of the Year.
“Raheem has a special relationship with English football, but he is so loved in the locker room,” says the Spaniard, who hopes he has personally made Sterling believe that his future lies with City, even if the club is unwilling to meet his wage demands. But the interest from Real Madrid is thought to be genuine, and who could blame Sterling for seeking a move away from English football and that “special relationship”? England might be a place where “a naughty boy who comes from nothing can live his dream”, but it is also a place that does not let that naughty boy move on, and constantly asks whether he really deserves to be living that dream. Oh and why is he in Greggs? And what car is he driving? And how much did it cost?
Sterling has previously spoken about the lure of better weather in Spain, but he must also crave a cleaner slate where he might be judged on the chances he takes rather than those he misses – both literally and metaphorically. He outscored every other player under the age of 23 across all Europe’s top leagues last season so we should be surprised if a goal-desperate Real Madrid were not interested. His CV – when judged blind – is pretty compelling. It is the CV of an elite footballer who could yet improve.
Does anyone in the room actually think Sterling would be ill-advised to jump at the chance to move to Real Madrid? Moving there and thriving there would be the perfect rejoinder to a “special relationship” that really must be taking its toll. Maybe England will finally appreciate him when the Big Yellow Taxi comes to take our boy away.