Raheem Sterling: England's tireless workhorse divides opinions

In soccer, the two most high-profile positions to be in when it all goes wrong are goalkeeper and goal-scorer. To the unstudied observer, you can make a serious error almost anywhere else on the pitch and it will likely soon be forgotten if it’s even noticed at all. But when a goalkeeper blows a save? Or when a forward fluffs a goal scoring opportunity in a World Cup? It can lead to something that’s not unlike a national inquest. Just ask England’s, Raheem Sterling.

The Manchester City forward was one of the best players during the first half of England’s match against Sweden in the World Cup quarterfinals last week. The Three Lions were up 1-0 with two minutes remaining in the half. While some players might have played it safe, maintained possession and shepherded the game into the break, Sterling was continuing with the breakneck runs he’s been stretching defenses with throughout England’s tournament.

Raheem Sterling of England between Albin Ekdal and Marcus Berg of Sweden during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Quarter Final match between Sweden and England at Samara Arena on July 7, 2018 in Samara, Russia. (Getty Images)
Raheem Sterling of England between Albin Ekdal and Marcus Berg of Sweden during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Quarter Final match between Sweden and England at Samara Arena on July 7, 2018 in Samara, Russia. (Getty Images)

In the 43rd minute of play, he darted onto a lofted ball from Kieran Trippier, completely burned the Swedish backline, broke into the area and was crowded out as Sweden’s Victor Lindelof was finally able to neutralize the danger.

A moment later, he was at it again, bursting forward and letting off a shot that Sweden keeper Robin Olsen managed to save, despite the offside flag having been raised anyway. A minute later, there was Sterling again, charging the Swedish goal on the break before being forced wide by the goalkeeper and seeing his shot deflected out harmlessly moments before the halftime whistle was blown.

England doubled its lead through Dele Alli in the second half and went on to win 2-0 and progress to its first World Cup semifinal since 1990. It was another confident performance from a young England team that arrived with Russia with few expectations placed on it and has impressed in its run to the semis.

But for some reason or another, certain quarters of English soccer support and punditry choose to put their focus on Sterling’s missed chances, rather than England’s success as a team, or for that matter, Sterling’s role in that success.

Former Wales international and Chelsea player turned actor, Vinnie Jones, claimed that if not for his pace, Sterling “would be playing for (fourth-tier side) Exeter,” rather than current Premier League champion, Man City.

On its website, BBC gave Sterling the lowest rating of any player who took the field against Sweden.

Social media also took aim at the fleet-footed Sterling for the number of chances he spurned.

No one wants to see a player on their team miss chances, especially when that player scored 23 goals last season as their club won the title. But the need to vilify a player like Sterling, who was born in Jamaica and immigrated to England as a child, suggests an ugly undertone is at play here.

Mesut Ozil, a German player of Turkish descent, has been subject to similarly suspect scapegoating following Germany’s failure at the World Cup. But the case with Sterling is all the more frustrating and perplexing, considering in the four matches he’s played, he’s been an integral part of the team that’s handed England its best chances of winning the World Cup in decades.

Unfortunately, these sorts of criticisms are nothing new for 23-year-old Sterling. In the past, he’s been singled out for getting a tattoo of an assault rifle on his leg – a reference to the fact that when the player was two, his father was killed by a gun – and for lobbying for the move that took him from Liverpool to Man City.

While it’s admittedly unfortunate that Sterling has been unable to replicate the goalscoring form he displays for his club for England this summer, there are good reasons he’s featured in four out of the five starting lineups manager Gareth Southgate has put out at this World Cup. Sterling’s pace and tireless industry bring a dimension to England’s attack that simply can’t be replicated by the likes of Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford, or even English soccer’s current golden boy, Harry Kane.

Sterling’s pace, his intelligent runs and ability to stretch other teams while keeping their defenders constantly on their toes, have been vital to England unlocking defenses and opening up scoring opportunities for the likes of Kane. If he can put the icing on the cake, by adding goals to his game, all the better. But in the meantime, Sterling brings a valuable element to an England team that should be praised for exceeding its expectations, rather than nitpicked for the sake of finding something to moan about.

Thankfully, there are many in the England soccer fraternity who appreciate the value Sterling brings to Southgate’s team.

Former England great turned pundit, Gary Neville, lashed out at the criticism, labeling it “absolutely disgusting.

Neville’s former teammate and fellow England great, David Beckham, was quick to join him in backing Sterling.

“Haven’t seen this but whatever it is it’s wrong,” wrote Beckham on social media. “We are in the semifinal of a World Cup. Every player deserves to be applauded.”

England meets Croatia in the World Cup semifinals, this Wednesday, July 11.

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