It’s a shame that it has to be this way. That, despite England reaching a World Cup semi-final for the first time in 28 years, there remains this fixation with Raheem Sterling.
There always has to be an argument about him. Not only about how he did or did not play, but over the agenda which lies behind those perceptions. You see, that’s the great disservice done to Sterling: the coverage of his private life has become so slanted and repetitive, that his right to be judged on his footballing merits alone has been taken from him.
His performance against Sweden was both good and bad. It would clearly be disingenuous to pretend that he shouldn’t have scored at least once or that, throughout the tournament as a whole, his finishing hasn’t suffered from a lack of conviction.
The temptation to do that – to assess selectively – does now exist, though. The opposition to Sterling has been so unreasonable that to criticise him at all, no matter how briefly and with whatever justification, feels like an endorsement of what has come before. It’s a very strange place for a footballer to occupy. When Sterling missed his first-half one-on-one, the only response should have been disappointment; England were 1-0 up at that moment and a 2-0 lead at the break would have been very handy.
But instead, rather than a true sporting reaction, there was this lingering awkwardness. Because of how he has been targeted, Sterling is now backed by a great deal of goodwill. The majority evidently wanted him to do well and would have enjoyed seeing him use this competition to burn away the dark rhetoric of the right-wing press. When that chance was squandered, then, it felt like a feeding of the narrative which most want to see defeated. Worse – perhaps it was even an opportunity for it to strengthen.
It shouldn’t be like that. People should be free to take football as seriously as they like, but it should never come with that kind of sub-text.
England have dramatically exceeded expectations in Russia and, irrespective of what happens over the coming week, their players will return home having restored the bond between the team and its public. But Sterling seems to have been forcefully detached from the group. The tone and forcefulness of his treatment has turned him into a separate entity and, under the circumstances, that’s appalling.
As a case in point, The Mail’s on-the-whistle report from the Colombia game ignored all the high drama of the match and the controversy of the night, focusing instead on his individual performance. It was extraordinary. The journalist responsible would later claim time pressure as justification, but nobody else in the industry saw Sterling as the story that night – either before the first deadline, or after it. Across the media, the player drew a passing mention in most match-reports, appropriate given his peripheral role in the game, but in excess of 400 words in The Mail. In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was he, rather than England’s World Cup game, that the journalist was there to cover.
They, like those who have shared their editorial taste, have succeeded in pulling him from the team structure and isolating him from the story. In the past, this coverage has been condemned and rejected, but only now is its result being laid bare. The result is a character, not a football player: someone who must be judged in binary code after each and every game.
It should be remembered that not everybody who has been watching these games has the desire to digest football in the same detail as a year-round fan. With that being the case, it’s a fair assumption that many will remain unmoved by the technical analysis which has – rightly – been used to defend Sterling and illustrate the breadth of his worth. That indifference shows in the many social media comments which continue to target him and, with more discouraging detail, in his ranking bottom of the player rating system on the BBC website.
He’s reached a point at which the substance of his performances all but incidental.
Clearly, there is England and there is Raheem Sterling. Given what he has contributed to this team, in its qualification and participation, it is unfathomable that such a situation should exist on the eve of a World Cup semi-final.
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