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 – and you can listen to it at the Football Daily.
‘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.
In March, Sterling was vocal in condemning the racist abuse received by England players during their 5-1 win in Montenegro as well as offering support to his younger team-mate Callum Hudson-Odoi.
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 fans.
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. — BBC SPORT