Raheem Sterling is a spectacular footballer. He is a Premier League winner, a crucial component of what many believe could be one of the greatest teams in modern English history. Only ten players have scored 50 Premier League goals at a younger age, and only 13 Englishmen have ever scored more in the European Cup or Champions League. He was the most-capped player in the most recent England squad; he has only just turned 24.
Raheem Sterling is an even better person. He became an ambassador for a police charity in 2016, visiting projects aimed at preventing youngsters from turning to crime. He showed compassion and gratitude to an old lady who saved rare examples of his positive newspaper coverage and sent them to him through his care worker mother. Over the past two years, he has bought both his mother and sister separate houses for their support throughout his life and career. He made a “substantial” donation to those affected by the Grenfell fire in 2017. Pep Guardiola says he is a “nice guy”; Gareth Southgate described him as “a very strong character”.
He has had to be. In December 2017, Sterling was attacked outside Manchester City’s training ground by a Manchester United fan with a history of football-related violence. Karl Anderson, six years older but infinitely more immature and pathetic than his target, branded the forward a “black Scouse c***” and a “n*****”, kicking his legs and hoping that his “mother and child wake up dead in the morning”. Sterling played against Tottenham later that same day, scoring twice in a 4-1 win.
The only thing that has changed in 12 months is the word “Scouse” – although “Manc” is hardly an improvement. His response to racist abuse was just as powerful, just as admirable and just as awe-inspiring on Saturday, if not more so. As he prepared to take a corner against Chelsea, he faced a vitriol of toxic abuse from grown men incensed that he played football for a different team. Sterling simply laughed at them.
It gave rise to suggestions that those in the stands cannot possibly have said anything too offensive. Social media was awash with lip readers trying to decipher the shit spewed from the mouths of middle-aged men on Saturday evening, some pointing out that they must have only used the words ‘Manc c***’ and not ‘black c***’ because the victim chose not to react.
It is a baffling line of argument in so many depressing ways. The belief that the use of the word ‘Manc’ instead of ‘black’ made the intended message any less of a personal attack is dangerous. There was never anything ‘alleged’ about the abuse; the only point of contention was how it manifested itself. And even if Sterling’s skin colour was not used against him explicitly, it does not mean the incident should be ignored or forgotten. Abuse can be racially motivated without being overtly racist.
Sterling eloquently pointed out that newspaper coverage over the past few years has helped ‘fuel racism and aggressive behaviour’. Saturday was simply the latest in a long line of examples. Karl Anderson, those Chelsea fans and every rival supporter that boos Sterling have seen the front pages, they know how much he earns and they think that makes him a valid target. They believe what happened at the weekend was justified, a long time coming. The Daily Mail, The Sun and others are complicit in letting this happen – and their attempts to exonerate themselves of blame even now are mindblowing.
Mightily impressive stuff from @TheSun.
Manages to entirely airbrush out of existence the fact he blames the press for whipping up this hatred.
— The Sun Apologies (@SunApology) December 9, 2018
Even on commentary during the match, Steve McManaman said that Chelsea fans were “wishing Sterling a happy birthday” – a reminder that this happened on the evening that he turned 24. Only in football could such vile, horrendous, abhorrent and unjustifiable abuse be normalised, and a group screaming the word “c***” at a man trying to do his job a matter of yards away be so diluted. This was not ‘banter’, nor was it simply an entrenched ‘rivalry’ manifesting itself in the most ugly fashion possible. The mangled faces of those shouting at Sterling betrayed their utter hatred and contempt for him. It was anything but lighthearted.
As ever, Sterling is the only one to emerge from yet another regrettable, avoidable situation in a better light. That he sought to highlight not the coverage he himself faces, but the similarly unacceptable reporting of teammate Tosin Adarabioyo is testament to his character, but also a sign that he believes negative perceptions of him are too established to change. And that is fucking heartbreaking.