Sections of the English media attacking the nation’s footballers is nothing new, but the vicious treatment of Raheem Sterling goes beyond even that.
Whether it is doctoring the face of Graham Taylor onto a turnip or detailing the love life of Sven-Goran Eriksson like a particularly graphic Sex and the City episode, the vilification of footballers from a sneering section of the English press is something that we have become accustomed to down the years.
With Sterling, however, it seems that bit more personal – bizarrely so – and the latest in this seemingly never-ending agenda came this week when the Sun’s front page was devoted to the Man City forward’s new tattoo, an M16 rifle on his right calf.
Without context, granted, the pictures of Sterling’s leg brandishing a tattoo of a gun might have raised one or two eyebrows. It was, without knowing the significance, a strange choice for body art and one that was bound to lead to follow-up questions. However, his social media statement should have been enough – especially when he stressed that it was not finished yet – to clarify that he is not advocating or glamourising the use of guns.
It is the polar opposite. He has first-hand experience of the damage that guns can cause, and how he chooses to honour his father really shouldn’t be called into question by anyone.
What followed, of course, was infuriating clutching of pearls by those with a desperate need to feel outraged at something:
There are calls for Raheem Sterling to step down from England’s World Cup squad following his decision to have a gun tattooed on his leg. Which side are you on? pic.twitter.com/thN3YekOiY
— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) May 29, 2018
(This is the type of thing that tends to happen when the section of the public not interested in football are asked to comment on footballers’ actions; the word ‘overpaid’ tends to appear a lot too.)
As a once off, it could be passed off as something to fill a slow news day, a cheap pop at another ‘bad role model’ footballer but ultimately it would have blown over in a day or two. But this isn’t about the tattoo, not really. Anyone closely following the number of column inches devoted to the Life and Times of Raheem Sterling can attest to that.
This is the latest in an increasingly long and altogether sinister attack on a 23-year-old man. A thread compiled by Adam Keyworth laid bare the full and shocking extent of this sustained vendetta:
[Thread] a selection of times when our national press have chosen to run stories on Raheem Sterling.
1. The one where Raheem was ‘tired’. pic.twitter.com/6K3cHu6r7T
— Adam Keyworth (@adamkeyworth) May 28, 2018
So here we have a young English footballer, periodically referred to in the above headlines as a “footie idiot” “Prem idiot,” or “love rat” daring, having the audacity, the sheer gall, to, among other things, eat at Greggs even though he’s rich, drive around in an unwashed car, spend too much money, not spend enough money, eating breakfast despite not winning an award and – like only an absolute scumbag would do – buy a sink for his mother’s house.
The public condemnation of their attack on Sterling should have been enough for them to stop and back down. So too should Sterling’s explanation. Of course, bullies don’t back down when cornered. They lash out. They double down. They ask questions in their headlines like “When did Raheem Sterling’s dad die and how many children does he have?”(the answer to both, of course, is “none of your business”)
We all know how this ends, of course. England won’t win the World Cup and these same tabloids will pin the finger of blame squarely at Sterling. “Footy idiot flops in Russia” etc, the personal attacks tastelessly masquerading themselves in the ill-fitting disguise of journalism.
This goes far beyond the realm of criticism – it is naked character assassination in its most naked, twisted form. It’s obscene bullying of a young man whose only crimes are that he is young, rich and brilliant at football.
It’s just as well that Sterling seems to have enough mental strength to handle the barrage of targeted abuse that has been coming his way, because there are countless numbers of young people whose lives could be irreparably destroyed by constantly being picked on in this manner.
Despite what the constant attacks would have you believe, Sterling absolutely is a role model for young fans. A young man that has overcome tragedy in his early life, moved to England at the age of five and went on to join Man City for £49m. He was one of the biggest stars of a Pep Guardiola-managed side that has stormed its way to the Premier League title and is set to play a key role with his country in a World Cup.
Unfortunately for Sterling, bullies tend not to have morals and are gleefully devoid of such burdens as having a conscience. They smell blood now, so the character mauling is only likely to get worse before it gets better.
It’s shameful. It’s disgusting. It’s vindictive. And it needs to stop.