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The Superstar Who England Loves to Hate

On Raheem Sterling, who enters the World Cup in Russia in the form of his life—and with some unfair weight on his shoulders

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’re going to have a word about England forward Raheem Sterling, his reputation, and his gun tattoo, but I’d first like to discuss Lyon midfielder Nabil Fekir, who was as good as on his way to Anfield just a few days ago.

The Frenchman was all set to fill out an already-fearsome Liverpool attack by being its fifth or so diminutive magician with a knack for wobbling runs and hitting that teeny-tiny opening that no one else can see. Of course, because it’s silly season, all of this was balanced on the word “reportedly”—Liverpool and Lyon reportedly agreed to a £52.8 million fee for the player; Fekir reportedly passed his medical in France; Fekir, who is in Russia with Les Bleus, was reportedly confident” in securing a move. He didn’t secure the move, you may have heard, and that too is silly season—Antoine Griezmann is going to Barcelona and then he’s not; Neymar will complete a shock transfer to Guangzhou Evergrande once he’s finished playing 21 with Justin Bieber at the new Hillsong multiplex that just opened on the moon; Gareth Bale, at long last, is coming to the red side of Manchester, for realsies this time.

The Fekir saga was strange but on the whole not so outlandish. What was bizarre was how suddenly Fekir-less Liverpool fans stumped for the midfielder to hand in a transfer request over the weekend, seeing as how Philippe Coutinho—who bolted for Barcelona and more money in January—may never hear the end of it. Which brings us back to Raheem Sterling, and how he was treated when he left Liverpool for Manchester City in 2015, and on just about every return to Anfield since. As a person who may carry my grudge against Eric Gordon to the grave, part of this is just the nature of sporting fandom; if a player at a club you support is promising, you naturally grow fond of them, and you would prefer that player realize their potential at said club. But if the player in question should ever try to leave or ask for more money, you vilify them because how dare they. (This goes double if they seem happy or build upon their powers elsewhere—why would you leave to become the Sixth Man of the Year in a different city? Why would you do that, Eric?) This is also dumb, and we sound ridiculous when talking about it: Back in 2015, Jamie Carragher could not believe Sterling had the gall to ask the club for what he was worth. Steven Gerrard—who once punched a man in a Southport bar because Gerrard wasn’t allowed to change the music—said Sterling needed to “be a man” about his Liverpool future.

A lopsided reading of player rights and a lack of self-awareness partly explain why Sterling receives an outsize amount of stick, but if that were all there was, you would not be reading this, and I would not have written it. There’s a weird thing that happens with young English talent, specifically young black English talent, where fans and tabloid covers and men in suits on television heap inflated expectation onto them and take any perceived misstep as them buckling beneath it. Once you’ve shown promise—say, going to your first World Cup at 19 on the back of a dazzling club season and putting in a memorably “world-class” performance against Italy—everything is scrutinized. The luxurious house you don’t deserve (even if you bought it for your mother); the car that’s just a little too flashy; your hair, which you should stop messing with. As you could guess, this sort of commentary does not get more reasonable around big international competitions. The heaviness of the England shirt, they call it. Remember that crucial group-stage match against Wales at Euro 2016 in France?

Coming off of a nervy performance against Russia pockmarked by wastefulness in the final third, some had called for Sterling to be dropped from the team in the following must-win game against Wales. (Fittingly, for someone aged just 21 at the time, after that listless draw in Marseilles, Sterling posted a picture of the Stade Velodrome to Instagram, adding the hashtag “#TheHatedOne.”) Sterling wasn’t dropped, and seven minutes in against Wales came the Chance. The chance to shut everyone up, to alter his image, to go from problem child to hero, or thereabouts. Adam Lallana broke down the wing and picked Sterling out just in front of goal, and Sterling … blazed it over the bar.

Sterling was pulled at halftime, and the boos—online and IRL—had gained so much in volume that the England management staff were genuinely concerned the jeering might erode his confidence. You know how the rest of the tournament went: England survived into the knockout rounds to earn a tragicomic exit at the hands of Iceland, a feel-good story that should not have been able to match the Three Lions for footballing might. This was the most embarrassing thing to ever happen, and upon his return home Sterling became a scapegoat of sorts, emblematic of these rich, pampered superstars who no longer knew what it meant to win, even though England hadn’t won anything in 50 years. It was a poor showing for a young player on a big stage, which happens.

The sustained negative attention that grew out of it would break lesser men, but Sterling is fine. Better than fine, actually: the now-23-year-old is steaming into this summer’s World Cup after his most impressive club season ever, during which he’s morphed into a complete attacker for Premier League winners Manchester City, banging in 23 goals in all competitions and adding 17 assists. Maybe even more so than Harry Kane, Sterling will be the vital attacker for England, its crucial no. 10. You need only look as far back as April, when City met Tottenham for the final time in the Premier League season and Kane largely went missing, while Sterling continually warped and broke the Spurs defense through some combination of positioning, speed, and slipperiness, even if his finishing left a little to be desired.

England will need Sterling’s ability to create havoc in order to come out on top of a group that features a tricky Belgium side along with Tunisia and Panama. Brushing aside the most recent dumb controversy at training this week—a tattoo of an AK-47 on his right leg that’s been there for some time, a tribute to a his father, a victim of gun violence—Sterling, insofar as you can tell from a brief media availability, seems focused, up for it. Sterling is going to Russia with one purpose and one purpose only: “Winning it,” he said last week. “I said before that there’s no point coming if you don’t think about winning it. We don’t want to be one of the teams that are just there to compete. We want to have the mentality to win it and I feel everyone here has to have that and we do.”

There’s another tattoo of his that people on the internet noticed last week—a forearm piece depicting a young boy in an oversized no. 10 shirt, ball in hand, gazing hopefully up at Wembley. Sterling will technically be in Volgograd on Monday, but the dream is nearly realized.

Just as elsewhere in sport, success changes character and vindicates perceived shortcomings, even if it doesn’t materially change anything. Personally, I’m ready for Raheem Sterling to be a hero.