Getty Images

In-depth: Gareth Southgate backs Raheem Sterling, so should the press

In-depth: Southgate backs Sterling, so should the press

02/06/2018 at 23:58Updated 03/06/2018 at 02:03

As Gareth Southgate sat down to answer questions ahead of England’s international friendly against Nigeria on Saturday, the assembled press were quick to zone in on the hot topic of the week – Raheem Sterling’s controversial new tattoo.

What's this all about?

Sterling’s new embellishment - an M16 assault rifle emblazoned on his right calf - became front page news this week after The Sun newspaper ran the headline “Raheem shoots himself in the foot.”

The article detailed how anti-gun campaigners had called for Sterling to be dropped from the England World Cup Squad, having failed young fans in his capacity as a “role model” before referencing heightened levels of deaths by knife and gun crime in “Sterling’s home town of London.”

Indeed, another newspaper story, headlined “Stabbed teens die on streets,” began “Two more teenagers were killed over the weekend as Sterling revealed his controversial gun tattoo,” referring to the victim, apparently a “keen footballer,” as if the incidents were somehow linked.

Raheem Sterling trains with the England squad as The Sun publishes it's story this week

Raheem Sterling trains with the England squad as The Sun publishes it's story this weekEurosport

Sterling, who’s own father was shot and killed when he was a child, was quick to defend his tattoo, stating “I made a promise to myself I would never touch a gun in my life time, I shoot with my right foot,” indicating a “deeper meaning.”

Southgate steps in

Speaking on Friday, England manager Gareth Southgate defended the Manchester City forward, saying: “He [Sterling] understands how some people have perceived the tattoo but in my view a tattoo is like any work of art. It’s a very individual meaning, the intent is all with the individual and the person.

" What has been clear by his own statement and his own experiences is that he is not someone who supports or wants to promote guns in the way that was perceived at first."

Paper cuts

It seems patently obvious that a man, himself a victim of the impacts of violent crime, would be unlikely to glamorise guns, but the tabloid press has form when it comes to attempts to tarnish Sterling’s character, not to mention cause disruption in the England squad ahead of an international tournament.

Kick It Out chairman Lord Ouseley told BBC Radio 5live this week: "Whether you could say he’s been targeted because he’s black, it is a very difficult thing to prove. But Raheem has attracted negative publicity because I think he has been targeted by those who see him as vulnerable."

Meanwhile social media users rushed to Sterling’s defence, noting what they perceived as a targeted and sustained attack by sections of the media – the time Sterling spent too much money on a private jet, the time he spent too little money on an Easy Jet flight, the question – just how many children does he really have? The time Sterling crashed his car, the time he smoked a shisha pipe. And who could forget, of course, the audacity of the young star, buying a “blinging” house for his mother complete with – of all things – a “diamond encrusted sink,” shortly after England’s woeful Euro 2016 campaign.

Of course it’s not that long ago Sterling burst on to the scene as a bright new hope for England, back in the 2014 World Cup, only for the team to experience its worst ever campaign in the tournament, exiting at the group stage. Because, lest we forget, Sterling is only 23 years old.

Perhaps not anticipating the reaction to the tattoo was naïve, but don’t we all know someone with a tattoo that seemed like a good idea at the time? And it is easy to forget how young he is, given not only his achievements in the domestic league, but also the years of abuse we have witnessed him endure at the hands of the press.

Perhaps the negative media attention is the reason why despite his obvious talent, Sterling has in the past seemed under-par for England – unsure and lacking confidence. The rhetoric that he is “too rich to care” is one often peddled in damning reports, yet doesn’t it seem more likely that the running commentary has taken the joy out of wearing an England shirt?

The campaign has reached the point that it starts to look like an agenda – a personal vendetta. Perhaps the motivation is simply that outrage sells more newspapers than acknowledging that the message to the millions of young people who idolise him, that he chose to make sport his weapon, is actually an incredibly strong one.

'He's a great example to young kids'

Outrage undoubtedly sells more newspapers than the celebration of talents that have the potential to make a real difference for England, or the possible celebrations of a good result for the national team, but whatever the motivation may be, it’s clear that he at least has his manager’s backing.

Southgate said: “I think the personal story of a lot of our players is quite remarkable. People often highlight the issues, the faults, of all of the squad, but for so many of them it’s incredible they’ve got to the point they have.”

“They are a great example to young kids of what you can achieve with your life if you are dedicated, if you are focused. Raheem embodies that. Nothing is given to you in life, you have to fight all the way.”