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There was an interesting exchange between Ian Wright and Roy Keane at the end of ITV’s coverage of England’s semi-final victory over Denmark when the former England striker was at a loss to explain how Raheem Sterling had been overlooked for the man-of-the-match award. “That won’t bother him,” Keane replied but Wright, perhaps alluding to how Sterling has always seemed to have to fight harder for acceptance, was in no mood to let the matter rest. “I’m sure it won’t bother him but it bothers some people,” he added, the exasperation in his voice unmistakable.
There have been times watching Sterling in this tournament, not least in extra-time against Denmark when he was still running and running and running long after others had emptied their tanks, when he almost looked possessed, where the desire was spilling out of every pore of his fabric. The Manchester City forward is not the first sports figure to feed off negativity and criticism and he will not be the last. But, seeing him driving England forward time and again at these Euros, it has been hard to escape the feeling of a man who has channelled all the abuse and slights and barbs and curious oversights and injustices and used them as fuel to elevate his game and, by extension, that of his team. And that feeling of release is pushing him to the point of maximum expression heading into Sunday’s final against Italy at Wembley, the stadium that, as a kid, he literally watched being erected from his back garden in Neeld Crescent barely 500 yards away.
Sterling will doubtless have had personal conversations with family in recent weeks but others who have managed to get him on the phone have encountered an individual in an extreme focus bubble, someone reluctant to look beyond the recovery process and the next game. His television interviews have suggested as much. He is not particularly interested in talking or looking back. A question asking if he had justified his selection following a match-winning turn against Croatia in the opening game was not unreasonable given the debate around his form coming into the tournament but Sterling’s dismissive response was in keeping with the siege mentality he has successfully adopted.
He is close with Marcus Rashford, a man better placed than most to recognise and appreciate the struggles Sterling has had to overcome, and the Manchester United forward has been a persistent source of encouragement and support, a shining example of the comradeship Gareth Southgate has sought to foster. But, ultimately, it is Sterling who is harnessing a melting pot of internal fires with control and clarity on the pitch that has thrust him into contention for the player of the tournament award and there is now one hurdle left to cross, the biggest of the lot.
Sterling dubbed himself #TheHatedOne during the last Euros, when he became a lightning rod for England’s failings, and perhaps even now he may not feel quite as loved or appreciated as he would hope, or should be. Being passed over for Harry Kane for the man-of-the-match award against Denmark may be a very small reflection of that, just as the thirst with which some rushed to condemn him as a diver after he won a soft penalty on Wednesday seemed to stray beyond the boundaries of a mere wish for greater honesty.
Raheem Sterling was targeted after England's Euro 2016 failure
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A couple of points here. Yes, Sterling went to ground easily but let’s stop calling it a blatant dive. There was some contact and it was not his fault the Var did not see fit to overturn the decision. But would the same people rebuking him for tumbling have accused him of not being wily enough had he stayed on his feet? Heaven knows England have had enough criticism down the years for not being streetwise enough at these tournaments. And would the reaction have been the same if Jack Grealish, for example, had gone down in similar circumstances?
After just two goals in his first 45 appearances for England, Sterling has scored 15 times in his last 22 outings, three of which have come at these Euros having drawn a blank in his three previous tournaments.
His drive seems to be borne out of a desire on the one hand to prove people wrong – and that probably includes his club manager, Pep Guardiola – after a disappointing final few months to last season when he started only half of City’s final 22 matches and his England place was in doubt, and some deeper rooted reasons as well.
Recovery with the bro ski pic.twitter.com/HFOhM7dG2v
— Raheem Sterling (@sterling7) July 4, 2021
His father, Phillip Slayter, was murdered on the way to a wake when Sterling was just 18 months old and his memory is never far away. But you could equally have imagined that despairing teacher’s voice – the one that asked what made a 14-year-old Sterling so special – ringing in his ears when he scored against Croatia a stone’s throw from his old classroom. Or the racist abuse he suffered at Stamford Bridge, and with which he has had to contend long before that depressing episode. Or the media vilification for daring to buy a house for his mum, Nadine, the same woman he would help clean out hotel toilets in Stonebridge before school and the reward of a Bounty bar from a vending machine for breakfast. Or the cries of “mercenary” from Liverpool fans when he swapped Anfield for the Etihad Stadium in 2015, which ring rather hollow three Premier League titles, an FA Cup and four League Cups later.
In an interview in 2017, Sterling pondered why people from outside had such a hard time warming to him. “I’ve got that face,” he said. “You know when you see someone on TV and go, ‘I don’t like him?’ Some people have that face and I’ve got it. The ‘I don’t like face’. That’s how I see it.”
Yet that face is the face of modern Britain, just as this England team, drawn as it is from diverse communities, is an emblem of a multicultural society of which people should be proud. Maybe this will be the night when Sterling is finally taken into the country’s bosom.