We need to talk more about Raheem Sterling

Words By Musa Okwonga Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 10, 2018

Can we talk about Raheem Sterling for a moment? Not the man – since we barely know much about him other than his Instagram account and whatever hysterical headline the Daily Mail throws in his direction – but the player. Because I don’t think that we talk about Sterling enough, and how exciting he is. English football has long been accused of either wildly understating or overstating its greatest talents, and in Sterling’s case I think that we have an example of the former. Here is someone, after all, whom Pep Guardiola was particularly keen to have in his team, and whom the Spaniard seems to rely upon whenever he is available. Under Guardiola’s tutelage, he has quickly evolved into one of the most reliably devastating wingers in world football. The speed of his feet is, remarkably, matched by the speed of his thinking.

We don’t talk about Sterling enough. Like David Silva, his brilliance this season is in danger of being taken for granted. Because Manchester City have been so good, so consistently overwhelming, it is tempting to see him as just another snowflake in the sky-blue blizzard. But Sterling’s role in all this has been essential. Consider that, alongside Harry Kane, he is one of two English attackers who could have a strong claim to start for any team in the world. There is no reason why, on current form, Sterling could not grace the Clasico, acting as the perfect foil for either Gareth Bale or Leo Messi.

That should not be so fanciful, given that Sterling has long been regarded as one of the most gifted young players in world football. What is perhaps surprising, rather like Kane, is how quickly he has achieved his potential. He is only 23, and has already played 250 games of professional football – most of it beneath a level of scrutiny that has possibly been claustrophobic at best and threatening at worst. Despite all this, though, his career has shown not steady but startling progress.

You know you’re doing well when your manager gives you an affectionate nickname, so when I saw Guardiola referring to Sterling as “Raz” I knew something good was afoot. He’s a constant threat on either flank, with the brains to start a counter-attack and the mercilessness to finish one. He is currently scoring at a rate that would delight most strikers, with 18 goals in 28 games in all competitions, and his influence goes far beyond that. He has driven so many accurate low balls across goal that he may be tempted to trademark the technique, and has tormented so many defenders that they now mostly seem comfortable when facing him in packs. When City begin their march upon the later stages of the UEFA Champions League, his fitness will be vital to their chances of success.

But we can’t avoid talking about Sterling too long – and, regrettably, I do mean “the race thing”. Because it matters, and I think it’s a key reason for the fainter praise he is getting in some quarters. When Sterling was recently racially abused and attacked by a fan before a match, many commentators drew a link between that offence and the steady stream of negative headlines Sterling has been attracting for the last two years. The Daily Mail seems to have taken particular pleasure in goading him at every turn for what it sees as his excessive materialism. It was little surprise when, following this assault, several journalists were either mute or incredulous as to why a member of the public might have felt emboldened to go after Sterling.

The real question is why anyone would go after Sterling at all. Apart from one ill-advised interview when he was just about to leave Liverpool, he comes across as a fairly innocuous character. I suspect there was such fury at his departure from Anfield because he was seen as an emblem of Liverpool’s future success, and to lose him to an emerging rival represented an unsettling shift of power away from Merseyside. The beauty of his move to City, as it turns out, is that he can go about his business largely in peace. He doesn’t have to operate under the same brutal spotlight that he would at Old Trafford, and City are so far above their competitors in the Premier League table that he almost seems part of some dream sequence, where his team is covered from afar with reverence. One suspects, at some level, that this is exactly how he likes it.

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