GARETH SOUTHGATE was scouting for England at the 2014 World Cup when he took a closer look at Raheem Sterling.
It was Italy in the opener, a 2-1 defeat in Manaus in the Amazon jungle, when he marvelled at Sterling’s fearlessness.
3 Raheem Sterling has been backed to become the best player in the world by his manager Gareth SouthgateCredit: AFP or licensors
He was 19, coming off an exceptional season with Liverpool in the year they came within a whisker of winning the title under Brendan Rodgers.
What a player Sterling turned out to be.
Southgate said: “I think back to the World Cup in Brazil, in the first game against Italy, I’m sat in Brazil, watching him, and he was just a huge threat from the start.
“You know how much it means to him, how much he wants to do well.
“It’s for him to reflect on how he felt then but it’s just lovely to see a young man establishing himself at the real top table in the game.”
Sterling is sitting there now, in the same conversation as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo because of his influence with club and country.
During the man-of-the-match presentation after England’s chaotic 5-3 win over Kosovo, he still respectfully pointed out that they have been doing it for a lot longer.
Even so, at 24, Southgate is convinced Sterling can take the next big step.
3 Sterling and Sancho have become part of a potent England forward lineCredit: AFP or licensors
England’s head coach said: “In terms of ‘Can he fulfil it?’ he’ll give himself every chance.
“There are some outstanding players around, the Hazards, the De Bruynes, plus the two mentioned.
“But he’s got the drive, he’s got the professionalism, he’s got the ability, he’s strong and he’s physically and mentally strong for such a small-statured lad.
“The rest of the players look at that and they see that mentality. It has a big impression on them.
“He’s now a two-time Premier League winner, so the honours are starting to stack up.
“All that has done is give him the hunger to go on further.
“I’m delighted he’s getting public recognition and long may it continue.”
Sterling is a force for good on and off the field, with his reach now stretching into different areas of the sport.
On Monday he spent time with Jadon Sancho, walking him through the increased demands and scrutiny of international football.
The Borussia Dortmund youngster, starting on the opposite wing against Kosovo, had been begging Sterling to set him up for his first international goals. In the end, he provided him with two.
Southgate added: “When I have the leadership group in, he’s very clear but thoughtful with his opinions. If there are things that he thinks can be better with the mentality of the players, or the way we’ve set the week out, he’ll thoughtfully put ideas across – he doesn’t just sit and complain.
“Then you see his interaction with the players.
“I noticed, over the last 24 hours especially, he spent a lot of time with Jadon and that was probably quite a comfort.
“I can pass things on but there’ll be more depth to that if your fellow winger, who has been at the same club as you and has been through what you’re going to go through, can talk to you.
“That’s far more powerful. You can’t quantify what that will have meant for Jadon.”