Raheem Sterling is animated, half-smiling. He is remembering the last time that he was racially abused on a football pitch. Or rather, that he thought he was going to be racially abused.
Manchester City were sealing the Premier League title away at Brighton, German midfielder Ilkay Gündogan had just scored their fourth goal and Sterling was about to join a celebratory melee. “I’m running over and I’m looking at the fans. And I can see this guy’s going to shout something. I swear to you. You could see the anger in his face,” he recalls.
But something changed. Making eye contact with Sterling, the Brighton fan softened. “He just closed his mouth and put his thumb up,” says Sterling, mimicking the supporter. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, you’d better not say anything.’ ”
That moment sums up Sterling’s remarkable trajectory: even his happiest moments have come with the threat of abuse, but right now he is silencing his critics.
Once derided for his limitations (“He doesn’t actually kick the ball very well,” said former England striker Michael Owen in 2015), he has emerged as arguably the best English player around. He won the 2019 player of the year award, chosen by football writers, and young player of the year, chosen by fellow professionals. With City, he won the Premier League, the League Cup and the FA Cup, scoring two goals in last month’s final.
On one measure — the number of good chances created or finished — Sterling has become the most dangerous attacking player in the league, above his teammate Sergio Agüero and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah. Not for nothing is he the best-paid Englishman in the division, on up to £300,000 a week. “I’m 24 years of age; every year it’s getting better,” he says.
But it’s off the pitch where he has truly come of age. In December he called out newspaper coverage of young black footballers, arguing in an Instagram post that it “helps fuel racism”.
The media had long insinuated that Sterling himself was a troublemaker, a love rat, an overpaid brat and also — confusingly — a cheapskate. “Raheem Sterling earns £200,000 a week . . . but takes £80 easyJet flight,” ran a headline on the MailOnline. The Sun called him “footie idiot Raheem Sterling” and “Obscene Raheem”.
The negativity made Sterling doubt himself, and worry for other black players. “You put another five young kids at my age in that position and treat them like that — I don’t think a lot of them will come out the other side mentally right.”
Many people have taken on the media and lost. Sterling won. Since December, MailOnline has published more than 1,000 stories mentioning him, but not one derogatory headline. The Sun switched to labelling him “Generous Raheem Sterling”, after he bought 550 tickets for pupils from his old school in Wembley to attend City’s FA Cup semi-final there.
“The media in England has kind of got it,” he says. “They’ve been changing, they’ve wanted to help not just me but the national team . . . Long may it continue.”
Sterling was central to the likeable England team that reached the World Cup semi-final last summer. This week he will line up in the Nations League semi-final against the Netherlands. Whatever happens next, his story is a testament to the contradictions of top-level football. Football gave him his ticket away from poverty; football introduced him to mass racism. Football painted him as an enfant terrible; football is now making him a golden boy.
We meet in a photographer’s studio in New York. Sterling bounces around, taking charge of the iPad to put on grime and drill music. He is often described as shy but in person he can be exuberant and wide-eyed. “Get me an agency right now!” he laughs, as he tries on designer outfits.
He looks out at a skyscraper. “Is that a loft apartment up there, where them flowers are? That would be sick. Are apartments good out here?” He is deflated to learn that New York homes tend to be quite small. “I thought they’d have sick apartments.”
This is Sterling’s natural state; his shy post-match interviews are misleading. “You’ve just finished a game — you just want to celebrate. So you’re not really yourself,” he explains. “But on a day-to-day basis, I’m cheeky. Normally I’m laughing, joking.”
Sterling was born in Jamaica. When he was two, his father was shot dead. Soon afterwards, his mother Nadine moved to the UK to study; he and his sister joined her a few years later. “I’ll never forget waking up at five in the morning before school and helping [my mum] clean the toilets at the hotel in Stonebridge [in north-west London],” he wrote in an article last year. “The only good part about it was that my mum would let us pick anything we wanted from the vending machine when we finished.”
Excluded from mainstream classes at his primary school, Sterling found football was “the one thing I could do that made me happy. I put everything in that — all my energy, all my anger, all my happiness. I didn’t want to hear anything else.” There was no plan B.
By the age of 11, he had an offer from Arsenal’s academy, but his mother insisted that he go to Queens Park Rangers, where he would face less competition. He often arrived home from training at 11pm, having taken three buses with his sister (his mum wouldn’t let him go to training alone).
Living next door to Wembley Stadium allowed him to dream big. “A massive part of it for me was actually being able to see the stadium, and having that as a reference,” says Sterling. He now has a tattoo of himself looking up at the Wembley arches. The area was a melting pot. “Being in London, in a multicultural city, in a multicultural school — everyone was kind of understanding of each other’s beliefs, each other’s faiths, colours,” he says. “My best friend was from India . . . I had friends from Somalia. You tend to learn about their culture, you understand them as individuals.”
The young Sterling was a Manchester United fan; he has gone on to represent their two biggest rivals — City and, before that, Liverpool. And it was in Liverpool, hat he first experienced racism. In one incident, he was recognised and headbutted on the way home from school. “There’s never a time in my life in England I’ve received racism outside of football. It’s just purely to do with football,” he says.
His experience of abuse intensified when he moved to Manchester City, aged 20. By then Sterling was known as a pacy forward, suited to Premier League counter-attacks. He wanted to win trophies, and doubted Liverpool’s chances. The result was an acrimonious transfer as Sterling publicly agitated for a move.
The fee paid by City — up to £49m — remains the largest ever for an English player. But Sterling paid his own price. Newspapers looked at his background — a boy whose father had been shot; who was a teenage dad (to a daughter, Melody); who himself had been charged twice for assault (the first charge was dropped after a witness didn’t turn up, the second case collapsed after evidence given by the alleged victim, a former girlfriend, failed to implicate him); who had demanded a lucrative transfer. They formed a view, and dripped it into the public consciousness.
Soon after, at the 2016 European çhampionship, Sterling was booed by England’s own fans. “That was a massive one for me,” he says. “There were times that I felt like, that I should say something, but I didn’t feel it was the right time . . . I tried to put my head down.”
Even fellow players believed the bad press. Kevin De Bruyne, who joined Manchester City the same year as Sterling, said he’d assumed his teammate was “a bit of a dickhead”. Ignoring the negative stories became impossible for Sterling. “My friends would send them in on group chat and we’d have a laugh. The first couple of times. Then I remember us saying, ‘This is becoming kinda silly now’ . . . After a while, you start to see it in a different light.”
In late 2017, Sterling was racially abused and physically attacked outside the City training ground (he nonetheless scored twice in a league game hours later). Before the 2018 World Cup, he was accused of glorifying gun violence, by having a gun tattoo on his right leg. He argued the image had a “deeper meaning” because of his father’s death.
Last December, Sterling decided to speak out, pulling together two dynamics. One was racial abuse: a Chelsea fan was caught on camera appearing to shout a racist insult at Sterling during City’s defeat away at Stamford Bridge.
The other dynamic was the discriminatory media coverage: Sterling highlighted articles about young City players buying houses. One story, about Phil Foden, who is white, read: “Manchester City starlet Phil Foden buys new £2m home for his mum.” A story about Tosin Adarabioyo, who is black, said: “Young Manchester City footballer, 20, on £25,000 a week, splashes out on mansion on market for £2.25m despite having never started a Premier League match.”
Sterling wrote on Instagram: “For all the news papers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all i have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity an give all players an equal chance.” His post received 650,000 likes.
Did he ever worry that people wouldn’t listen? Sterling hesitates, puzzled. “I actually didn’t even think if people were going to listen. It was kind of — I’ve had enough of this, I’ve seen a pattern over many years that was happening. This is the time.”
England has had prominent black footballers since the 1970s, including Cyrille Regis, Paul Ince, John Barnes, Ian Wright. Some laughed off racial abuse, others made stands over particular incidents. But some black fans felt their heroes failed to take on the system. In his book No Win Race, the writer Derek Bardowell laments that while Wright complained of being called a “f**king black bastard” by another player, “he didn’t mobilise black footballers, or create a collective voice”.
No male player went as far as Eniola Aluko, a female England footballer, who in 2016 formally complained to the FA over racism and bullying. Meanwhile, anti-racism campaigns such as Kick It Out won few tangible results.
Sterling doesn’t like being called a role model. Does he ever wonder why the mantle fell to him? “There’s been people over the years — like Kick It Out. Those campaigns are good, but it’s not what is needed to actually make a change.”
Playing for England against Montenegro in March, Sterling was subjected to monkey chants by opposition fans; after scoring England’s fifth goal, he held his ears to silence them. Montenegro were fined just €20,000. “I don’t feel these fines that are given out are really acceptable for discriminating against people’s skin colour . . . I don’t think people take it as seriously [as other insults],” Sterling says. He has derided one initiative to tackle racism — a 24-hour social-media blackout by players — and called instead for clubs to lose nine points if their fans commit racist abuse.
Perhaps the fundamental issue is representation. Britain now has biracial members of the royal family (“a massive statement”, says Sterling). But it has never had a black prime minister and has had only three black cabinet ministers. The England football team have never had a black, Asian or minority ethnic manager; today, no Premier League club has a black British manager or a black majority shareholder. The pitches are replete with exceptional black men but the offices are not.
Sterling is not in favour of representation for its own sake. “There’s no point in saying there needs to be a black guy in the office and a black guy needs to do this or that,” he says. But he feels there have been at least “a few” black candidates who have merited jobs in football and “just didn’t get the role”.
Discrimination can be subtle. Even abuse can be hard to identify. In March, the Crown Prosecution Service said that there was insufficient evidence to charge the Chelsea fan accused of abusing Sterling. The man argued that he had called Sterling a “Manc” four-letter word, not a black one. He apologised anyway, saying that he “got carried away”.
Do fans need to take football less seriously? Sterling demurs. “I understand when they get caught up in abusing the opposition players. I’m all for that. English football’s always been about that. Boots. Whether he’s got blond hair. If he slipped in a game. That’s all natural football banter. That’s really funny . . . When it becomes vicious, that’s when it’s just not funny.”
Fans shouldn’t just chill out a bit? “I’m watching Barcelona-Liverpool, I’m watching Tottenham-Ajax — and I’m shouting at the screen at players!” he says. “The sport gets you so frustrated and so excited at the same time. I think that’s why people love it.”
Perhaps more than ever, football is a team sport. City manager Pep Guardiola uses a passing system that relies on a well-drilled collective; the club have bought multiple world-class players for each position to make it work. If Sterling were a spoiled brat, he might struggle. Instead, he has thrived. He is a skilful dribbler and a direct runner who makes beelines for the goal. “He doesn’t have to think, except when he’s using his left foot,” Guardiola once said.
The competition for places has only made Sterling work harder. He was signed in 2015, partly because City had exhausted their quota of non-home-grown players. Yet last season he played more minutes in the Premier League and Champions League than any other City attacker.
Crucially, Sterling now scores. In each of his first five seasons in the Premier League, he never tallied more than nine goals.
In the past two, Sterling has scored 18 and 17 league goals, respectively. One explanation — put forward by the tactics writer Michael Cox — is that City’s style means he can often pass the ball into the net from close range. Sterling instead attributes the improvement to not “doubting myself because people used to doubt me”.
“I was young — I was 19, 20 years of age,” he reflects. “These people are on the easy side of it. They sit in the office and write lovely or bad headlines. But at the end of the day, it’s you on the training field and it’s only you that matters.”
Sterling now describes himself as a “winger but not really a winger — a winger coming inside, being somewhere around the striker, in the box . . . At the start of the game, when they show the line-up, yeah I’m out wide. But I don’t really want to be out there.”
In All or Nothing, a 2018 behind-the-scenes documentary series about City, Guardiola tells the squad: “You are the best team in the world.” Does Sterling agree? “To be honest . . . not in an arrogant [way], I’ve never gone into a game with City thinking, ‘We could lose this today.’”
But that invincibility is also a liability. When City beat Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup final two weeks ago, completing the domestic treble, some commentators complained it was an unfair contest. City are accused of “financial doping” and acting as a vehicle for the Abu Dhabi royal family, their owners, to improve their reputation. They face a possible year’s suspension from the Champions League for having allegedly breached Uefa’s financial fair play rules. For some, their achievements come with an asterisk.
Sterling’s frustration is clear. “No one’s made a big deal out of [the treble]. If another team had done it, a lot more would have been made out of the team, of the individuals,” he says. “Even last year when we won the league — with 100 points — it wasn’t really highlighted in a way where I felt it was right . . . People [need to] understand it’s not easy — the teams that we’re playing against, the managers that set up against us.”
Guardiola yearns for more. He is famous for his detailed instructions. As City players celebrated their FA Cup victory, he took Sterling to one side and lectured him on tactics. “He was explaining there was a scenario in the game where he thought I could pass the ball, rather than me taking a couple of touches and dribbling with it,” says Sterling, with a knowing smile. “He loves it.”
Gareth Southgate, the England manager, has said that Sterling wants to become the best player in the world. “There’s no point being in a field, just to be another number. You’ve got to try to aim to be the best in what you do. If it’s not the best player in the world, then at least the best player in my position,” says Sterling. “For me, there’s more responsibilities that I want to take on — in terms of being the penalty-taker, little things like this that get you extra goals.”
City’s penalties are currently taken by Agüero, who missed two out of six last season. England’s are taken by Harry Kane, who hasn’t missed since February 2018. “It’s only a matter of time till I do those things. As long as I keep doing the right work, and have the same mindset, I will get there,” says Sterling.
A few days before I meet Sterling, I watch the FA Cup final in a pub. When Sterling’s face comes on the screen, the bartender says: “I hate him as a person.” It’s almost laughable that fans have such strong feelings about the personalities of players they have never met.
Sterling is unbowed. He is not looking forward to retirement, like his England teammate Danny Rose, who has also suffered racist abuse. Football is “amazing”, “a blessing”, he says. “You’re at Selhurst Park or Old Trafford — these are places you were playing on your PlayStation when you were 12.”
At 24, he should have another decade in top-level football. There are two holes in the trophy cabinet. One is the World Cup. There was once a chance that Sterling could have represented Jamaica. “They came and spoke about it,” he says. But he always “felt more connected” to England. “My first couple of years with the national team were really tense. After a while, you learn to enjoy it,” he says. Southgate has “taken the weight off our shoulders”.
The other hole is the Champions League. This season City were knocked out by Tottenham in the quarter-finals, after Sterling’s late goal was ruled out by a video review. “This is football — I say nothing happens before its time. When it’s our time to be in the final and make history, it will happen,” he says.
Other challenges beckon. He would love to play abroad “one day”, partly for the weather: “To do what I love and to have summers on the beach would be a dream come true.” Off the field, it’s been reported that he is engaged to Paige, his partner and the mother of his second child. “Why does this keep coming up?” he says, his distrust of the media resurfacing. “These newspapers annoy me, man. I’ve seen that the other day, and I’m like, what?”
Life under the spotlight is still uncomfortable. It arrived very fast. “I remember when I was 17, and that felt like two years ago,” says Sterling. “I’m 24, going on 25, and it’s like, oh gosh.” He wants to be the father that he never had: “I want to make sure that every little thing that I would have wanted at [my kids’] age, that they get that growing up.”
As our interview ends, what Raheem Sterling most wants is a break. His next stop is a short holiday in Jamaica. “I need a beach,” he smiles. “I need some rum, I need a couple of sips of some rum. Just chill out, you know what I mean?” Presumably it’s all part of Pep Guardiola’s detailed instructions.
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer
Data analysis by John Burn-Murdoch
Raheem Sterling wears Kenzo, Givenchy, Stella McCartney; Acne Studios, Ovadia and Sons; styling: Julie Brooke Williams; set design: Marco Galloway