Among the myths debunked by this England team is that footballers should shut up and play and not allow “distractions” through the door. “Distractions” have helped make Raheem Sterling his country’s most influential player at Euro 2020.
Enlightened souls in the national set-up always felt that encouraging England players to find their voices would elevate them as people and players. To be sure of their own identities would help them be certain of themselves as athletes, with control over events. Sterling, the “boy from Brent” with the national currency surname, traces his transformation to the day in December 2018 when he woke up resolved to take a stand against racist abuse at Stamford Bridge and how he was being framed in parts of the media.
As Gabriel Clarke pointed out in a telling ITV interview, Sterling had scored twice for England in his first 45 games but has since amassed 15 more goals en route to 66 caps. In this European Championship he was England’s only scorer in the group stage, against Croatia and the Czech Republic. His third, against Germany, was a moment of beauty for him and catharsis for the country. Sterling and Harry Kane have played together 44 times and for them both to score against Germany strengthened their claim to be one of England’s best double acts.
If you studied Sterling across England’s four games you saw a 26-year-old veteran of four tournaments applying commendable energy and tactical discipline. His commitment to those around him and the tactical needs of the team were almost as valuable as his goals, which provided the victories Southgate needed to validate his cautious approach to the group stage.
Thus Sterling has been vital in every respect: talent, goals, experience, self-belief and team ethic. The Wembley roar he could hear from his nearby childhood home and cycle rides round the stadium is now for him.
Raheem Sterling of England celebrates the opening goal during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Round of 16 match between England and Germany at Wembley Stadium on June 29, 2021 in London, United Kingdom.
Image credit: Getty Images
But how, why, did his emergence as a public figure outside the game help with his actions on the pitch? Sterling told Clarke: “Mental. Worrying about what people thought of me, he’s not good at this, he’s not good at that. You grow up, you mature.”
The start of the change, Sterling said, was the Instagram post where he challenged the highly dubious perception of him as decadent or flash – “that I’m a spoilt this, I love money, I love bling, putting these perceptions in people’s brains. I just felt that’s something that can really make people dislike me.”
The effect of holding up this mirror to society might just have been to start a conversation or a tediously familiar counterblast from those blind to their own privileges and power. But it made a difference to Sterling himself. “A hundred per cent” said Jordan Henderson when asked whether making a stand had improved his England team-mate, who’s now one of Gareth Southgate’s “tribal leaders,” five years after he posted an Instagram lament at Euro 2016 about being “the hated one.”
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If Southgate needed case studies to show England players the importance of trusting their own voice and values, Sterling and Marcus Rashford have been regulars at the lectern. At previous tournaments, pundits telling Sterling he needed to ‘justify’ his place would have pitched him into an introspective spiral. This time he just looked bewildered by the idea and got on with guiding England out of the group with his goals and dependability. Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho would have all hoped to deprive Sterling of his starting place. Now each knows there’s no route through him to Southgate’s starting XI.
Even in qualifying Sterling was involved in 15 of England’s 37 goals; but before the Croatia game he had yet to score in tournaments and the sight of him trudging off 77 minutes into the Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester City was discouraging for his admirers. That night in Porto it was hard to imagine Southgate still seeing him as an automatic starter. However much the England manager has changed the culture, though, faith in proven class continues to shape his thinking, as it usually will at international level.
An England career that started at 17 years and 11 months in 2012 has delivered Sterling to a Wembley semi-final as a tournament talisman near to the streets where he could hear the distant sounds of great drama. It’s disquieting to think that by deepening Sterling’s resolve, hate or demeaning treatment could have helped England in this European Championship. Abusing people is no way to make them stronger. Yet the cycle Sterling was in, and the way he addressed it, allowed him to glimpse a truth about his own life and potential.
“Stop looking for people to give you validation,” he said. “It’s got to come from within.”