Alongside his pace and passing, Raheem Sterling’s versatility is what makes him one of the most formidable attacking footballers in the Premier League. Floating seamlessly between the wide and central positions, the Manchester City star is equally as effective on either flank as he is in the hole, playing off a striker.
But beyond Sterling’s footballing credentials – which, after winning the league title and two EFL Cups with City since a £49m move from Liverpool, while racking up double figures for goals in each of the past four seasons, are bordering world-class – perhaps Sterling’s biggest contribution to the game has been in his response to one of its enduring aberrations: racism.
Sterling, born in Kingston, Jamaica, was raised in London, in the shadow of Wembley Stadium. Despite not yet having reached his 25th birthday, he has amassed nearly half a century of senior caps for England, more than Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham had managed before theirs. Sterling’s rise, though, has not been as straightforward as the numbers suggest.
Routinely scrutinised by sections of the British press, Sterling has served as both a scapegoat for defeats and a story-well for slow news days. After England’s humiliating exit from Euro 2016 following a 2-1 defeat by Iceland, for example, the Sun branded Sterling “obscene” and a “flop” as it dedicated its front page to his decision to buy a house. Three days later, the same tabloid ran a profile of Sterling, calling him a “footie idiot”. In a cowardly move, the Sun opted not to include a byline on that piece.
In October 2016, MailOnline ran a story criticising Sterling, who earns a market rate for top-flight footballers, for having the audacity to use a budget airline. In January 2017, the Daily Star criticised Sterling for not washing his car. That same month, MailOnline again attacked Sterling, this time for daring to shop in Poundland.
For a while Sterling let his football do the talking. As the tabloids’ resentment poured unashamedly onto their pages, Sterling continued to develop as a player under the management of Pep Guardiola, producing swashbuckling performances week in, week out for a City side that merits discussion as one of the greatest ever to play in the Premier League.
If Sterling is good enough to play regularly for Guardiola, who has lifted 25 trophies across three clubs in just ten seasons of senior management, the question must be asked where people could ever get the idea that he isn’t. The answer is from a misguided and bitter British media that is still uncomfortable with the concept of rich black men.
In December, shortly after Sterling was subjected to racist abuse from the stands during City’s game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, it was clear that silent professionalism would no longer suffice. Sterling turned iconoclast and finally spoke out against the double standards employed by some news organisations.
He took to Instagram to highlight the differences in MailOnline’s coverage of two similar stories about his City team-mates Tosin Adarabioyo and Phil Foden, who had both decided to use their wages to buy homes for their mothers. While the article detailing Adarabioyo’s purchase drew attention to his salary and his lack of game-time for City while implying that his contract was the result of bullish negotiating on the youngster’s part, the piece about Foden labelled him a “starlet” committed to keeping his “close-knit family together” and praised his teetotal lifestyle. Sterling was appalled and urged the media to think about the messaging he said “helps [to] fuel racism and aggressive behaviour” and to spare a “second thought about fair publicity and give all players an equal chance”.
In the last week, Sterling has starred for England in 5-0 and 5-1 wins over the Czech Republic and Montenegro respectively in qualifiers for Euro 2020, scoring four goals in the process. In the game against Montenegro, in the country’s capital of Podgorica, Sterling and fellow black team-mates Danny Rose and Callum Hudson-Odoi, were met with racist abuse from home fans, including monkey-like chanting and a cigarette lighter being thrown in their direction after Sterling netted. Sterling, who celebrated his goal by cupping his ears and smiling at the fans, said after the game that it was the “best way to silence the haters”.
Sterling deserves credit for speaking out, both against the destructive agendas of British tabloids and against direct racism from the terraces. But his defiant response must be matched by the sport’s authorities and institutions. If the notion of zero-tolerance for racism is to be believed, UEFA would do well to make Montenegro play their next few fixtures behind closed doors and deduct them points in qualifying for the tournament. Similarly, is it really radical thinking to suggest that Manchester City, or any club for that matter, should consider banning the Sun and other offending organisations from their ground if they persist with unfair coverage of black players?
Raheem Sterling has said his piece. It’s now up to football’s decision makers to act.