Over the last year, society’s understanding of race, both the staggered inequality of the present and the strides to get to where we are today, has improved immeasurably. Even those that booed England and Germany taking the knee on Tuesday at Wembley did so by diving off a higher board of knowledge, as hard as that may be to square.
The reasons for this are fairly simple. Those pushing for change and widespread education know what they are doing. When you commission them, they know how to write. Put a camera in front of them, they know how to talk and, crucially, what to say. Arguments, solutions and resolutions come from a place where intentions are good. But, most importantly, they are rooted in acquired intelligence. How to play the situations and seize opportunities presented before them. The routes to take and the speed at which to take them.
This is nothing new. Throughout history, the fight for social justice has been fought best by the smartest. Martin Luther King Jr had a doctorate in systematic theology. Nelson Mandela practised law. Lucretia Mott, an American anti-slavery activist from the 19th century, was a qualified teacher who used her networking and nous to build early foundations for civil, social and political rights for women.
Those are just three of countless names, many of who were not as front-facing but equally as vital in the societal improvement. And yet, for all, it came at a tax paid not just by them, but all of us. Here were some of the finest minds fighting for basic decency: their brainpower and drive occupied by the basic fundamental of treating each other the same.
The reason this is important is that we are in an age where our athletes have never been more diverse. And the thing about sports is that, by its nature, they can just be themselves. Talent, skill, athleticism and intelligence are rewarded on those grounds. A plane where who you are and what you are become so intertwined that doing your best and success wins over the masses.
On Tuesday afternoon, England lined up in a 3-4-3 formation with multiple players from minority backgrounds. When the boos were drowned out by applause, England and Germany stood up and played a game of football. England won 2-0. And Raheem Sterling scored.
He didn’t just score. He scored the opening goal, one which was going to involve him in some way. England’s first shot on target came from his dart from the left. When he wasn’t working from that wing, he was antagonising Germany on the other. In an XI where he was one of three outwardly attacking players, he took the heat off a labouring Harry Kane and was a beacon for the precocious Bukayo Saka. Every time the ball was at his feet, the nerves of this round-of-16 tie didn’t simply dissipate but flipped onto the opposition. A “how you like us now?” that is the most devastating tenet of transitional football.
It’s not just one goal, either. Three of the four England have got in this tournament have come from him. He is only the second player to register England’s first three goals in a major tournament since Gary Lineker in the 1986 World Cup. The very best case scenario for Gareth Southgate’s charges is three more games, and with 15 in his last 20 England caps, who’s to say Sterling won’t get near, or maybe even better Lineker’s six from that competition.
The issue, though, is that Sterling seems to exist in a unique “sour spot”. Whereby accomplishments in the most meritocratic of sports is not enough. The three Premier League titles, 96 league goals from out wide and MBE seem to run alongside a curse of male sporting blackness.
The tropes of money, disruption, broken family and laziness are affixed to him. A house purchase at the age of 20 drew scorn. Rumours of multiple children from just as many women still pervade the internet despite the dispiriting need for him to address that nonsense in a tweet as far back as 2014. The gun tattoo down his right calf drew wilfully ignorant derision from the shock jocks who make their grift from weaponising our differences. This time he took to Instagram to set the record straight, informing the wilfully misinformed that he lost his father to gun violence at the age of two and vowed never to touch a gun in his life. The symbolic nature of the tattoo was that his right foot would do all the shooting he needed. That same right foot that has his country in European Championship quarter-final against Ukraine.
Even hours after he had done so, idle conversation on the tube drifted to how wasteful he has been these last few weeks. Weeks, where he has had the most shots (seven), dribbles (six) and most touches in the opposition box (16) for a team who, beyond their defensive solidity, have fans tetchy about the lack of those three metrics.
The importance of Sterling is carried most by his immediate environment. Southgate took it upon himself to take his bond with Sterling to a new level ahead of the 2018 World Cup. Southgate had long recognised the player’s worth, standing by him as England made it to the semi-finals even when a goalless streak that eventually reached 26 games at international level became another stick to beat him.
After Sterling rightfully blamed the media for helping “fuel racism and aggressive behaviour” when he was racially abused at Stamford Bridge at the end of 2018, Southgate and others rallied around him. Not to coddle him per se, but to assure him they support his battles on and off the pitch.
It’s worth noting that after two goals in 44 caps, he now has 15 in the last 23. And moreover, Southgate’s appreciation of Sterling’s ongoing rise as a devastating facilitator has had a profound effect on the players around him.
Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford have cited Sterling as a totem of excellence, and those within the England camp have noted just how encouraging Sterling has been of them and others. When he was lauded during Tuesday evening’s post-match interviews, he turned the spotlight onto the work of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips for “eating up ground” that allowed the rest of the team to do their work. Beyond them, and the game as a whole – being a kid, from Brent or any other ends, how could you not relate to such glory and poise among genuine and externally manufactured struggle?
It would be remiss not to mention the awry pass that eventually found its way to Thomas Muller for what should have been Germany’s equaliser. Sterling, fresh from the mistake, was static, hands on his head before falling to the floor in exhausted relief when Muller dragged his one-on-one shot wide.
In a dispiriting way, England as a country has never been more with Sterling than that moment. We struck that pose, experienced that deflation and crumpled in exhalation when that ball scuttled beyond Jordan Pickford’s post.
It’s worth mentioning, Sterling is only 26. Older than some, younger than most, carrying our hopes while grafting against the system for his own. Yet the experiences have aged him. Maybe not in a football sense, but certainly in how he views his public perception. Bear in mind, this was a player who was asked by the BBC if his selection was vindicated after scoring the first of his three goals in a 1-0 win over Croatia in the opening match of Group D.
It need not be so different or this difficult. As we awake on Wednesday from our various states of ecstasy, why not change a little or a lot? The strides for equality still need to be made, not least because it continues to be that minorities are accepted based on their value to the rest. But the brilliance and cold hard numbers are doing the heavy lifting for the unturned.
Unlike the back-breaking, talent spurning work of those before Sterling, this is a chance to meet genius more than halfway. To shoulder the burden as our own rather than his.
What we have is a rare, graspable period to acknowledge his accomplishments, appreciate his contributions and recognise his resonance. An amnesty, of sorts, for someone who will go down as one of England’s most important footballers.
Sterling was then just as much as Sterling is right now. Moreover, Sterling will continue to be. Why not join him?
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