In 2018-19, Raheem Sterling shone brighter than ever in Manchester City’s star-studded squad.
The 24-year-old is on the cusp of a domestic treble – Premier League champion, Carabao Cup winner and with the FA Cup final to come on Saturday. His personal honours include the PFA Young Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year, and he was runner-up to Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk as PFA Player of the Year.
Once scorned for his lack of end-product and booed by England fans, he is now one of the most potent attacking forces in the country – scoring 23 goals across all competitions for City this season, plus another six for England, and a further 17 assists for his club.
Yet it is his rise to become an unofficial spokesman for a generation of footballers on race, class, society and the media that has people asking whether Sterling is the most important sportsperson in Britain right now.
A BBC Radio 5 Live special discussed the player’s influence, his upbringing, his talent and his possible legacy.
‘You’re not coming for anyone else’ – Sterling the ‘big brother’
In December, Sterling suffered allegedly racist abuse from Chelsea fans during City’s 2-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, and followed that the next morning with an Instagram post in which he questioned newspapers’ portrayal of black players and said it fed prejudice and aggressive behaviour.
The post pointed out the different treatment of Manchester City youngsters Tosin Adarabioyo and Phil Foden – both of whom had bought new houses for their mothers – in newspaper reports, and since then Sterling has become a de facto spokesman for black footballers.
“What was so powerful about the post was that he was not doing it for himself, he was doing it on someone else’s behalf,” journalist and broadcaster Musa Okwonga said.
“It was almost like he had weathered the storm, playing the role of big brother or uncle and saying ‘they’ve come for me and I’ve dealt with it, but they’re not coming for anyone after me’.”
When Sterling was presented with his Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award last month, chair Carrie Brown cited his public stance on racist abuse as being just as important as his exploits on the pitch.
And in April he was quick to call out Leandro Bonucci when the Juventus defender suggested that his team-mate Moise Kean was partly to blame for the racist abuse he received from Cagliari fan.
Sterling described Bonucci’s comments as “laughable”.
“He’s not a traditional spokesman, he’s a regular guy – a man of the people,” Okwonga said.
“He’s an everyman and that’s why his messages are so powerful..
“It held up a mirror on the media’s treatment of black players in a way which had never happened before.”
Host of England’s YouTube channel Craig Mitch added: “For me, Raheem is a massive inspiration. He’s taken so many metaphorical bullets. Metaphorically speaking he’s a martyr because he’s saying ‘you’re not doing this to this player or any others’.
“And on social media, he’s got a bigger platform than the newspapers or the media outlets to say ‘this isn’t right and I’m not standing for it’.
“You’re seeing things unfold and thinking ‘who is going to be the brave one to stand up and say something?’ Lo and behold it was Raheem.
“He’s decided enough is enough and since that post he’s just carried on standing up.”
But former Liverpool and England winger John Barnes challenged Sterling to use his growing influence to further the conversations about racism in wider society.
“He’s started the debate about the influence the media has on perceptions of black players but rather than talking about millionaire footballers who get racially abused, I’d like him to – because he’s got that voice and people are listening to him – to talk about the black community in general,” Barnes told the 5 Live panel.
“I think now footballers should, rather than talking about how terrible it is in Croatia or Montenegro, talk about the wider issues that really affect the black community in the UK who are disenfranchised, disempowered, whose kids are giving up hope because they are not given an education or social opportunities.
“Racism has been around for ages so we have to look at different ways of tackling the problem, and the way of tackling the problem is to stop talking about getting more black coaches or black people in positions of power, and to start changing the perceptions we have of the average black man in the street, not black superstar footballers, or Barack Obama, or Beyonce.”
‘He’s always been humble and quiet’ – Sterling the child prodigy
Sterling’s start in life could not have been much more difficult. His father was murdered when he was two, and his mother subsequently moved from Jamaica to London in order to provide for him and his sister, who stayed behind in Kingston and lived with their grandmother.
But Sterling and his sister eventually joined their mother and settled in north-west London, which is where he met Clive Ellington and began his footballing journey.
Grassroots football coach Ellington spotted the eight-year-old playing football in the playground and invited him to join his team Alpha and Omega FC.
“I was privileged to meet Raheem when he was eight,” Ellington told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“I thought ‘either the boys he’s playing with are really poor or he’s really, really good’. It turned out to be the latter.
“He never realised how good he was – he just loved football. He was a phenomenon.”
Ellington was struck not only by Sterling’s talent but by his passion for the game. “His ball-mastery, speed and low centre of gravity always stood out – but so did how seriously he took it,” Ellington continued.
“He had something different from everyone else – losing wasn’t an option for him, even back then. He cried and cried if he lost a game. We tried to console him but he’d never say a word.
“You can’t coach that kind of passion – it’s something in your DNA.”
From there Sterling went on to join the Queens Park Rangers academy before moving north to Liverpool to join their youth team at just 15.
He broke into the Reds’ first team at 17 and in November 2012 made his debut for the senior England team. He was signed by Manchester City for £49m in 2015.
“I still speak to him a lot,” Ellington said. “But not about football just about life in general and making sure his feet stay on the ground.
“I’m never surprised at what people say about Raheem when they meet him; he’s always been humble and quiet. I don’t know where all this stuff about him being brash, loud and flamboyant comes from.
“He cried to me when he went from QPR to Liverpool because he said he had to buy a flash car. I said to him ‘you don’t have to buy one’, but I’ve since learned when you make that jump you’re in a different world – a bubble – and you’re expected to conform to the footballers’ way of life.
“But he’s been lucky to have good people around him to keep his feet on the ground, and one was his mother. She’s always been there for him and supporting him but she wasn’t afraid to keep him in line too. She was a formidable part of his upbringing and she still is today.”
‘If he keeps going, he’ll go down as a legend’ – Sterling the inspiration
“In six years we’ll be talking about him making his 100th England cap,” said Rory Smith, chief football writer at the New York Times.
“And in eight years we’ll be talking about him as a leader of a generation. For players like Callum Hudson-Odoi he’s a standard bearer. He will go down as one of the most important England players of the early 21st century.”
And such is Sterling’s influence and profile, he is already being compared with Muhammad Ali.
“I would liken Sterling to Muhammad Ali,” said Mitch, host of England’s YouTube channel.
“[When Ali was first fighting] he wasn’t looked at as a legend, he was looked as an unruly individual from the Nation of Islam.
“No-one gave him props for standing up for what he believed in, and Sterling is going through he same stuff now. He’s changing people’s minds, he’s being brave, and we can see how it’s working out for him.
“We need characters like that because it takes them to another level outside sport and cements your legacy within humanity. And if he keeps going, he’ll go down as a legend.”
Sterling’s working-class immigrant background, allied to his growing profile and readiness to speak out about racist abuse, is making him a role model, Mitch believes.
“He symbolises the dream that you can be from a different country, grow up in the UK and rise to the highest level of football and perform consistently at the pinnacle of the game,” said Mitch.
“He’s a living example of someone who’s still playing who is trying to make history by winning a domestic treble with City and trying to win trophies with England.
“Any creed or colour can look at him as a inspiration. And that’s the highest act a human can perform: inspire. He’s one of the top role models we have right now – not only in sport but in popular culture.”