Raheem Sterling: a star on a journey as remarkable as his on-field talentsJuly 10, 2021
London: In the summer of 2004, as the iconic steel arch of Wembley Stadium was gradually hoisted into place, a 10-year-old Raheem Sterling would go to bed at home in nearby Neeld Crescent and dream big about the future.
“I grew up in the shadow of my dream – literally,” he would later recall.
“I watched the new Wembley stadium go up from my back garden. One day, I walked outside and saw this massive arch in the sky. It was rising up over the top of the housing estates like a mountain.
England star Raheem Sterling.Credit:Instagram
“I was like, ‘I can play there. I can do it’.”
On Sunday, Sterling won’t just play at Wembley but enters the pitch as the hope of the side in England’s first European Championships final and first major final for 55 years. Some commentators have even labelled the 26-year-old Manchester City forward – who earns a reported £300,000 ($555,000) a week – as the player of the tournament.
He played a decisive role in a goal and penalty in Wednesday’s semi-final victory over Denmark, has put the ball in the back of the net three times in his own right, and assisted Harry Kane in two of the captain’s four tournament goals. Aside from the draw against Scotland, Sterling’s Euro 2020 performances have always been an eight out of 10 or higher.
More than any other major sport in England, football has drawn its stars from the working class and in Sterling the code unearthed someone with a personal journey as remarkable as his on-field talents.
Born in Jamaica, Sterling was just two years old when his father Phillip Slater was gunned down in an ambush in the capital Kingston. His mother, Nadine, then moved to Britain to work as a nurse and study but Sterling and his sister Kima-Lee stayed behind with their grandmother and would not move to England until three years later.
After reuniting with his mother in north-west London, a young Raheem would get up at 5am each day to help with her second job as a hotel cleaner. After school the siblings would take three different buses so Raheem could attend football practice.
A decade later he would buy his mother a multimillion-pound house – a day he describes as “probably the happiest I’ve ever been”.
“If anybody deserves to be happy, it’s my mum,” he wrote in 2018. “She came to this country with nothing and put herself through school cleaning bathrooms and changing bed sheets, and now she’s the director of a nursing home. And her son plays for England.”
Sterling celebrates after scoring in England’s game against Germany.Credit:EPA
He was also assaulted outside Manchester City’s training ground in December 2017 by a thug who later pleaded guilty to racially aggravated common assault. Karl Anderson approached Sterling, called him a “black scouse c–t”, said he hoped his mother and child “wake up dead in the morning” and kicked the player four times.
A low point in press coverage came when The Sun ran a frontpage in 2018 under the headline ‘Ace’s sick new tattoo: Raheem shoots himself in foot’ accompanied by a huge picture of a new M16 assault rifle tattoo on his right leg.
Sterling explained on Instagram that the tattoo was about his murdered father: “I made a promise to myself I would never touch a gun in my lifetime. I shoot with my right foot so it has deeper meaning.”
Sterling also has the Wembley arch he watched being constructed as a boy tattooed on his arm.
Raheem Sterling’s son Thiago watches the England and Germany game.Credit:PA
By the end of 2018 Sterling had had a gutful and decided to tackle the newspapers head-on. Citing the glowing treatment the Daily Mail offered a white player who bought his mother a house compared to less favourable coverage of Tosin Adarabioyo, who also bought his mum a property and happens to be black, Sterling said: “The young black kid is looked at in a bad light, which helps fuel racism and aggressive behaviour.
“So for all the newspapers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all I have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity and give all players an equal chance.”
His intervention was a major moment in football’s confrontation with its race problems, although even Sterling’s strongest supporters would concede some unflattering coverage legitimately focused on his patchy form during England’s ill-fated Euro 2016 campaign and at the 2018 World Cup.
When even some of his own team’s fans booed him at games, Sterling labelled himself “The Hated One”.
Three years later he’s being praised alongside England manager Gareth Southgate as an inspiring social leader in a country where leadership has been missing in action for a long time, and where the black community has been in urgent need of a powerful voice.
How things have changed. A win against Italy at Wembley on Sunday would probably cement his emerging status as The Chosen One.
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