Happy thousandth everyone. Another month, another England landmark. Welcome to the 1,000th overblown mini-drama to enliven an otherwise deathly international break.
Congratulations are due on all sides. First to Raheem Sterling for instigating a significant but far from terminal training-ground bust-up. Second to the Premier League, the world’s greatest sporting soap opera, for granting us this spin-off episode and finally to the FA for “announcing” the incident on a slow Monday evening, electrifying the buildup to an inevitable 2-0 [Kane 2 (1 pen)] home win against Montenegro.
There will be a race to trumpet this story the loudest: the club‑on-club dynamic, the deepest background, the bloodiest fingernail close-up, the first CCTV stills of Sterling’s prematurely packed wheelie suitcase.
But let’s be honest. The incident is barely worthy of comment. Energetic young men have been having private dust-ups for as long as there have been energetic young men. Legend has it that in the pre-civil war years the US military lost almost as many officers to duelling as it did to fighting its enemies. Sterling and Joe Gomez will be fine. This is not a lifelong beef. Shit, as the officers of the 18th-century US military would no doubt point out, happens.
At which point, enter the real world. This is England, land of the personality-driven rolling 24-hour news obsession. Watching Gareth Southgate wince and frown his way through a Tuesday afternoon press conference that was effectively year five playground duty dissected by the mass media on live television (“Gareth, we hear talk of a scratch. Can you confirm this?”) was painfully awkward.
“Everyone has been very mature,” Southgate said, resembling a hard‑bitten but essentially decent League of Nations war crime commissioner announcing the surrender of a high-ranking Nazi war criminal.
Except, this is the exact opposite of what has happened. Nobody has been mature. The spectacle of fully grown adults talking in sombre, statesmanlike tones about one footballer asking another footballer if he’s “still the big man” will now form a part of the dramatic tableau of England football. Rejoice. For we are a deeply trivial people.
Yet here it is all the same: a thing. And as ever with England the real object of fascination is the fallout, the massed response and the way that echoes with other story arcs, other obsessions.
There are two points worth making. First, this has already affected the England team. Sterling has been dropped for Thursday’s. It is a gesture Southgate can afford to make. Montenegro are ranked 61st in the world, level with the wretched Bulgaria. Sterling is England’s best player, but his position is covered for a game like this. Southgate has been able to take a stand on this, to make a statement of personal power.
Point number two, and related: it is an entirely correct decision to drop Sterling from the team and to own this incident before it was leaked. Not everyone agrees. Sources close to various England players have suggested a disquiet at the severity of the response.
There has been a wider harrumph from the commenting classes that this is a case of nannying, another sign that passion is being gouged from our national sport; perhaps even ,if you look deeper, that the feminazi turbo-cucks are emasculating our Anglo man‑warrior nation, the one we all remember so fondly from the Good Old Days.
Yet, as a wise man once said, the big thing about the old days is that they’re the old days. If the players are protesting, if Sterling feels he can quietly vent his grievances, all of this only makes the point more clearly. Southgate is right to take a stand.
For one thing Sterling was on a warning. He turned up late for the friendly against Nigeria last year, having already been given an extra day off. Southgate waived any punishment but warned against a repeat. That warning has to mean something and Southgate must be trusted to decide what that meaning is.
This is the key point. England have an excellent manager, the best of the mature Premier League age, with the intelligence and the will to understand the altered relationship of players and manager, club and country, superstar status and the essentially voluntary nature of the England team.
Southgate knows this dynamic better than anyone and has made it work. Until now he has been his players’ advocate, has backed them in every set of circumstances. But it’s no use speaking in a soft voice if you don’t also carry a large stick. In the end an England manager has nothing but his mystique, his soft power. The moment people start deciding there’s space here to ruck in the players’ room, to show up late, that you basically don’t matter – well, that’s when you cease to matter.
At the same time Sterling deserves some empathy. He is a uniquely powerful presence, still only 24 years old but a world star in the process of turning supernova. Vilified, then deified, and now catapulted towards a kind of uber-fame in the post-Messi, post-Ronaldo future, Sterling is currently being sounded out for a US media giant documentary about his life story.
He has more social media followers than the Football Association. His net worth is already one-tenth of the FA’s annual turnover. This imbalance is something new. There are no roadmaps in how to cope, how to run alongside this level of power, pressure, reach.
What is certain is that Sterling is finding his own limits and there will no doubt be more fallout from this overblown operetta. Hopefully, this will include a proper clearing of the air on both sides. Southgate is right to draw a hard line around this, for reasons that go beyond team discipline and FA rules. But he has been, and can still be, a very good friend to a player treading a rare and vertiginous path.
The Guardian Sport