The England and Man City star has become one of the game’s elite both on and off the pitch
On a night marred by more sickening scenes of racist abuse which have become all too frequent in the game, there was the potential for England to cave and let the bigotry prevail. But one man stood out for all the right reasons.
Raheem Sterling was defiant in the face of abhorrent adversity once again, scoring two goals in a comfortable England win before speaking out against the racism-fuelled flashpoints that cast an ugly shadow over proceedings in Sofia. The night was merely a microcosm of Sterling’s ongoing development as an icon for English football – increasingly the winger’s role off the pitch has become as profound as his ruthless efficiency on it. Sterling should be cherished, supported and heralded as a vitally important player and role model for English football and wider society.
It is perhaps only right to firstly acknowledge Sterling’s work on the field – whether it be drifting into space or running directly at or in behind backtracking defenders. His starring role in the Bulgaria demolition job was a case in point. England’s number seven was a constant goal threat, adding an assist to an all-round complete performance to his double. On a night when England’s football coupled with their defiant action did the talking, Sterling was a star in both regards and was named man of the man in the process.
Under Guardiola’s tutelage and Southgate’s guidance, Sterling has become one of the best players in the world and the figurehead — alongside captain Harry Kane — for an exciting, forward-thinking England side developing all the time ahead of next summer’s European Championships. This constant improvement has been evident (Czech Republic blip aside) throughout the current qualifying campaign to date.
In September’s international break, the Jamaican-born flying winger scored twice and assisted a further four goals in two qualifying victories over Bulgaria and Kosovo. His showing in Sofia put his and his side’s disappointment of three days earlier in Prague to bed; it was merely a continuation of his supreme club form. In fact, since the start of 2018-19, Sterling has scored at a rate better than one in two, notching 35 goals in 63 appearances for the Citizens alone.
For a long time, it was clear that it was just the finishing touch preventing Sterling from taking the step to the next level – a consistent level of performance that he has now undoubtedly reached. Sterling was always effective – from his early days as a raw talent at Liverpool to his increasing influence under Brendan Rodgers’ title-seeking side of 2013-14, right up until the present day – a culmination of his year-on-year evolution as Pep’s go-to guy. These days, we expect a certain degree of performance from Sterling, one which perhaps he himself couldn’t have imagined in the past.
It now speaks volumes that goals and efficient final product are an expectation from Sterling rather than an unexpected bonus, as the previously popular criticism of him as a wasteful finisher cannot be levelled at him anymore. He has become a ruthless goal-scoring-and-assisting machine. What’s more, Sterling has been given an increasingly significant role for club and country. He is virtually un-droppable, with his statistics, his trophy-haul and vibrant energy a mainstay in the eyes of both Southgate and Guardiola.
As part of his importance on the pitch — particularly so for England — Sterling has become a role model to younger players such as Jadon Sancho and Mason Mount. Playing in a similar position, both Sancho and Mount are a few years behind the 24-year-old City winger, at 19 and 20 respectively. Sterling is paving the way for the success of the young stars who will be considering themselves lucky to learn first-hand from one of the game’s most in-form stars. Further, Raheem is becoming a vital leader and adding to his vast skillset in all aspects.
For his display without the ball at his dazzling feet, Monday’s qualifying victory in Bulgaria was another demonstration of the star Sterling has become – a beacon of light for English football and wider society aiming to give cultural ignorance a firm, career-ending tackle. Sterling’s prominence as one of the country’s, and more widely the sport’s, most dependable figures with regards to the fight against racism arguably began last December. Having experienced racist abuse in a Premier League against Chelsea, Sterling used his platform to condemn the actions of those involved – setting a precedent for action going forward.
Rightly commended for his actions, Sterling’s work was (and still isn’t) complete. In March, he and his teammates were subjected to racism similar to the abuse Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings suffered in Sofia. Then, as it was this week, Raheem’s response was to put in a Sterling display; complete as he cupped his hands to his ears towards the Montenegrin fans who had monkey-chanted in his direction for the game’s duration.
A month later, Sterling spoke to the Independent and described football’s racism problem as “deep” and “nowhere near being sorted.” Lamentably, it seems this still rings true, but the fallout from Bulgaria suggests that change could, finally, be afoot.
Before the farcical events that followed, Bulgaria manager Krasimir Balakov said in the lead-up to the game that England has “a bigger racism problem” than that of his own country. Having done his talking on the pitch, Sterling took to Twitter to mock this accusation: “Mmmmh..Not sure about this one chief”. Never change, Raheem. Hopefully, more actions such as Bulgarian Football Union president Borislav Mihaylov resigning and Uefa’s president calling for football to “wage war on the racists” will cause the remaining cancer within football to be eradicated for good.
Undoubtably, if this is to happen, Sterling’s role will continue to be vital. In April, he began backing a campaign calling for more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in positions of power, along with harsher punishments for racist abuse and actions from social media companies, the media and sponsors. If he continues in this vein, the sky is the limit for Sterling.
Perhaps he will go on to attain a status similar to that of an icon such as John Barnes, who did so for his combined impact on the game on and off the field that, until Sterling, had rarely been matched.