There were plenty of extreme reactions to England’s Euro 2016 exit at the hands of Iceland, a defeat so grueling even the players’ faces seemed to deteriorate in the late stages, mouths drooping, skin the texture of wet cardboard, resembling in their TV close-ups the kind of doomed minor zombie-movie characters who end up lying sweating on their bunks saying things like “It’s not … much of a bite” as the chief zombie-terminator shoots a pained look at his No2 and tenderly cocks his rifle.
A common response was to accuse the players of being weak and spoiled, lacking in basic depth of character rather than things such as skills, tactics and leadership. Ryan Giggs, commenting on television, identified a “washbag culture”, an idea of spinelessness and cowardice based around also owning a washbag, of a team so caught up with unctions and gels there is literally no neural space left to retain details of how to defend Aron Gunnarsson’s long-throw routine.
It was a harmless aside from Giggs, with no doubt some truth in it. The most predictable part was the way it was used, the fact at least one newspaper chose to illustrate washbag-theory with a large, damning picture of Raheem Sterling – who wasn’t mentioned by Giggs and who isn’t generally known for having a worryingly elaborate washbag or too many washbags, or whatever the key point of washbag culture is.
But until very recently this was simply what the media, both social and mainstream, did with Sterling. In newspapers, on radio shows and in the shared hate-brain of the internet Sterling became a handy repository for all that is bad and weak and flash and – dog whistle alert – “bling” in English football.
It isn’t hard to see why. For a start, he’s called Raheem rather than Dave or Fred or Nigel. He is unapologetically and in non-dilute form an Englishman and a Londoner of Jamaican descent, in a sport where only 35 years ago Cyrille Regis was being sent bullets through the post for accepting an England call-up.
Sterling is wealthy and successful. He showed aspirational ambition in leaving Liverpool for a club that currently has more muscle. Plus, from a distance he has a certain vulnerability, something wide-eyed, with that endearing power-waddle style of running, like an overgrown baby duckling being chased by a swan.
Football thrives on easy targets, on muster points for all that gathered intangible rage. For two years Sterling was repeatedly and relentlessly trashed and scorned in ways that went far beyond football. Lacks balls and fight, lacks toughness. This has often been said in the past about black footballers in England. It was said, quite a lot, about Sterling.
And so fast forward to the game against Tottenham. Sterling seemed a bit jittery at first in the late kick-off at the Etihad. But he is a thrillingly relentless footballer these days and by the end he had played the whole 90 minutes, scored twice and was there clapping the City fans with his team-mates.
Which is all the more impressive, not to say jaw-droppingly resilient, given we now know that four hours earlier Sterling was being violently assaulted by a 29-year-old man called Karl Anderson. Anderson had stopped outside the players’ car park. He ended up jumping out of his van and going berserk, racially abusing Sterling in the most vicious terms, then physically attacking him.
Anderson fled in his van, was tracked down and has been sentenced to 16 weeks in prison. His victim parked his car, got changed and played 90 minutes of high-pressure football without complaint and without letting his focus drop or his game-plan go awry. Lacking in balls, fight, toughness. They used to say this quite a lot about Sterling.
This incident is mind-bogglingly horrible from any angle. It has probably been a little under-reported, partly because of Sterling’s own stoic public reaction, the grace and strength, aged 23, to perform so soon afterwards when it would have been understandable to have asked to stand down. We already knew Sterling is a fine, fast-improving footballer. Clearly, if anyone out there doubted it, he is also a hugely impressive young man.
Except, of course, this doesn’t gloss over any of the horror of what happened to him. Sterling is not under a duty to be fine and great about all this. In fact, there is something telling in his strength, which is born out of necessity. Sterling has no choice but to resist. It seems fair to say no other footballer his age of the past 25 years has had to endure such a volume of high-profile personal abuse, much of it openly racist.
And here is the nub. It is not a surprise that Sterling was attacked in this way. Violence and rage do not exist in a vacuum. If you were to have predicted, say, in the summer 2016 that within 18 months Sterling would be racially assaulted at a football match, this would not be an outrageous conclusion to have drawn. The path from there to here isn’t hard to follow.
Even on the pitch there has been something odd about the way Sterling has been presented. More so than any other young footballer Sterling has been accused of greed, of coasting on his early success, of being simply a physical creature, a sprinter, lacking skills, bravery, craft. In its own way his blossoming under Pep Guardiola is a hand-written riposte – 15 goals: count ’em – to these charges. In Sterling, Guardiola has found a player with the will and intelligence to work on every part of his game, to become that rare thing, an English footballer with the ability to improve in his early 20s.
Off the pitch things have been even worse. The reaction to the 2016 Euro exit has been well documented. There was the absurdity of how the news pages – not the sport pages, no sports reporters buy into this – covered his decision to buy his mum a house, “flaunting the diamond-encrusted sink” and all the rest of it.
“The life and times of Three Lions footie idiot Raheem” was one online headline, referring, to avoid any confusion, to a successful 20-year-old English sportsman. Look up an online story on Sterling’s new home and even now underneath it there are comments published about him having a huge kitchen just to cook jerk chicken and accusing all Caribbean men of committing domestic violence. The constant references to his brief Jamaican childhood, the “blinging” house, the “King of Bling”, the “fleet of supercars”. The repeated talk of fans being outraged and angered. Little surprise this might breed anger and outrage of its own.
Nothing is right here. Sterling’s response, that he is shocked this kind of thing could happen in this day and age, is admirably soft-pedalled, but he can’t really be that shocked. This day and age looks like a pretty frightening place for anyone who imagined, up until a few years ago, that problems such as this had been effectively contained, not only in football but in society as a whole. One of the most prominent young black men in England was racially assaulted in the street. His strength in being able to perform in the aftermath is in no way a balm, or a solution or a pass. Even if it still deserves – quietly, and with no sense of cheer – to be celebrated.
The Guardian Sport