The Sun called him the ‘footie idiot’. The swine with the swanky sink. The ‘epitome of all the characteristics which have made England so unattractive and hard to love,’ barfed the Independent. The self-proclaimed ‘hated one’. All aboard the Raheem Sterling hate-train. Destination: What should have been a phenomenal career in tatters.
If the ‘Remain’ campaign in the recent referendum was as impassioned and tenacious as this one is against the 21-year-old, the United Kingdom would still be a member of the European Union. Forget the £49m he was bought for in the summer of 2015. Forget the hundreds of thousands of pounds he earns a week. Forget the cars. Forget the undeniable fact that this undeniably talented footballer hasn’t played up to his capabilities in the past few months. Never have I seen such an enthusiastic attempt from the UK media and its millions of football fans, many of whom claim to belong to the best set of fans in the world, to bring a young lad to his knees. This is harassment. This is bullying.
And for what reason exactly? What about a disappointing performance – about a display that perhaps doesn’t quite represent the £49m he’s judged to be worth (an arbitrary fee decided by the club, not the player, might I add) – makes a young lad, or man, or woman, or anyone at all, deserving of such vitriolic abuse? What began as innocent opinion pieces questioning the millions of pounds City spent on him has now mutated into newspapers using his picture in articles about drugs that have absolutely nothing to do with him. This has soared way beyond the realms of click-bait. It’s cold and malicious and calculated. It’s character assassination and it stems from a very dark place, a place far away from football.
At first we thought it could have something to do with the way he left Liverpool. The Merseyside club enjoys high status in the British football media with club legends Steve McManaman, Jamie Carragher and Graham Souness among others currently occupying pundit roles at BT Sport and Sky Sports. Sterling’s departure from Anfield was an acrimonious one that involved an awkward interview with BBC Sport and his rather outspoken agent, Aidy Ward, auctioning his client in discourteous fashion to potential suitors in the summer of 2015. The move and the way it happened upset the top boys. Carragher slammed the then 20-year-old, telling him to ‘keep his mouth shut’, while John Barnes claimed he should have stayed at Liverpool to ‘improve’. There was loud booing from the Kop and the money-grabbing jibes to go along with it, but nothing too sinister. Just football being football, a set of fans upset with a former player for leaving them.
The move has, of course, played a role; the joint to the cocaine addiction, if you like. But rather than smoking a cigarette, sleeping with his best friend’s wife or racially abusing a fellow footballer – crimes committed by present and past England stars Jack Wilshere and John Terry – Sterling is guilty only of joining a club better equipped than the one he left to win silverware.
For me, the fact that Raheem has been tarnished with the same ‘bad-boy’ tag that hangs over the heads of Wilshere and Terry is strange in itself. The lad may enjoy a couple of tokes on the shisha pipe every now and again, he’s posted his fair share of swaggy Instagram photos, too; but those are antics typical of a 21-year-old bloke.
In fact, Raheem appears to be a humble individual, one that conducts himself well in interviews and one that values his family life. His Instagram posts are respectful, regularly paying tribute to the players he shares the field with and showcasing the dancing skills of his young daughter, Melody, who remains his primary focus amid the circus that surrounds him. The video depicting a luxury mansion that, on a week where the people of the UK made their most important decision in the last century, made the front page of the Sun under the headline ‘Obscene Raheem’ turned out to be a property that he had bought for his mother. Does that scream arsehole to you? Yet Sterling is crucified for every wrong move he makes. If Terry can call Anton Ferdinand a ‘black c***’, Steven Gerrard can beat the shit out of a pub DJ and Roy Keane can actively go out to break someone’s leg and still enjoy legendary status among the British media, why is it that Sterling is bludgeoned for making a wayward pass?
Joey Barton is the latest big name to take aim at Sterling, but let me ask why Barton is considered to be a big name at all? The Scouse hot head who infamously left teammate Ousmane Dabo with a detached retina after a fight in training asked whether Sterling would be a professional at all without his pace in a recent piece for French newspaper L’Equipe. Criticism is fine, but why are we giving thugs like Barton the stage on which to perform? Why on earth are we allowing such poor role models to appear on national shows like Question Time? Would Barton be as popular as he is if he wasn’t a gobshite and a complete twat? Irrelevant, perhaps, but Barton dismantled his own footballing career. Sterling’s is being savaged by others.
It can’t be the way he played at Euro 2016, can it? Because if that were to be the reason for the demonising, surely Harry Kane would be receiving the same treatment. One could argue that Kane, unlike Sterling, had a fantastic 2015/2016 season and therefore deserves to be cut a bit of slack, but then we come back to that same question no one can really answer. People aren’t offended by bad performances. Disappointed, yes, but not offended. And there’s nothing obscene or idiotic about a below par display either. So why?
Of course, there’s a difference between Kane and Sterling; one that shouldn’t be important but, disturbingly, could be in explaining why the latter continues to be pelted. One is black, the other is not. One is ‘tired’, the other is ‘lazy’.
There was an excellent piece written by Sachin Nakrani of the Guardian on This Is Anfield the other day on the topic of unconscious racism. The piece focused on the uncelebrated brilliance of Daniel Sturridge, suggesting that the colour of his skin could go some way to explaining why the Liverpool striker doesn’t a glowing reputation similar to the one held by Michael Owen all those years ago – a striker who Sturridge has outperformed in Liverpool colours. Nakrani, a Liverpool fan, explains that Sturridge has become a ‘divisive figure within Liverpool’s fan base’ and questions why supporters still don’t have a song for one of the club’s best players of the last 10 years. Unconscious racism is the uncomfortable conclusion he comes to, and I believe it’s playing a role in the agenda against Sterling.
According to Laura Green of the Virginia Commonwealth University, the stereotype of the ‘lazy black’ or simple-minded and docile black man can be dated back to the colonisation of America. The Sambo (meaning a person of African heritage and a term now considered offensive) stereotype flourished during the reign of slavery in the USA. The Sambo was happy to serve its white master but was seen as naturally lazy and therefore reliant upon its master for direction. Unintentionally so, we’ve all been guilty of applying the stereotype to our own black players in the last 12 months. Wilfried Bony is deemed to be the laziest player in the squad; but when Kevin De Bruyne doesn’t track back, he’s just tired.
However, this doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t feel unconscious. It feels as if there’s bitterness towards a young black sportsman enjoying success. It feels as if they’re waiting to jump on him every time he trips over. It has become truly unsettling and it must stop.