Rather than basking in headlines celebrating his man-of-the-match performance that inspired England to a Euro 2020 semifinal victory against Denmark on Wednesday at Wembley, Raheem Sterling was greeted with criticism for “diving” to win the penalty that led to Harry Kane scoring the extra-time winner for Gareth Southgate’s team.
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Eight days earlier, Sterling was equally outstanding in England’s 2-0 round-of-16 win against Germany, scoring the opening goal in a momentous victory for his country. But the focus was on Kane, who scored the second goal that sealed the historic win, given his pursuit of the Golden Boot. (He’s on four goals, one behind Portugal‘s Cristiano Ronaldo and Czech Republic striker Patrik Schick, heading into Sunday’s final.)
Sterling went into the tournament with question marks over whether he would even find a place in Southgate’s starting team. It seems a lifetime ago now, but when asked after the opening game against Croatia, when he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win, whether he had justified his selection, Sterling’s surprised reaction summed up the pre-tournament doubts over his involvement, but also reflected that problem of having to work harder than most for the acclaim that his performances have deserved.
“Have I justified my selection?” Sterling responded, with some bemusement, looking at a media officer to confirm he had heard the question correctly. After a moment to gather his thoughts, he simply replied, “I’m trying.”
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In fact, Sterling’s performances during England’s six games make him an outstanding candidate to be named player of the tournament. Ronaldo and Schick lead the race for the Golden Boot, but they exited the competition in the round of 16 and quarterfinals respectively, meaning neither is likely to win it. Kane, with four goals, could match or eclipse them both if he scores at least once against Italy in Sunday’s final.
You could argue a case for a number of Italians as the outstanding player of Euro 2020, too. Giorgio Chiellini has been a defensive rock for the Azzurri, Jorginho and Marco Verratti have excelled in midfield, and Federico Chiesa has scored big goals at key moments. Leonardo Spinazzola also made a huge contribution prior to suffering a serious injury against Belgium in the quarterfinals, but while Roberto Mancini’s players have impressed individually and collectively, none has made the same impact as Sterling has for England.
From the opening game against Croatia, Sterling has risen to the occasion. His goal also sealed a 1-0 win against the Czech Republic, which set up the clash against Germany, in which Sterling again played a starring role. Against Ukraine in the quarterfinals and Denmark in the semis, his pace and direct running caused so many problems for the opposition that he stood out as England’s most potent attacker. Again.
He not only won the decisive penalty against Denmark, but his presence in the 6-yard box earlier in the game led directly to opposing captain Simon Kjaer bundling the ball into his own net in a vain attempt to stop Sterling from scoring.
But while he has been a consistent performer for Southgate’s team, there were valid reasons to question his selection at the start of tournament as doubts about his England place were triggered by his disappointing end to the club season with Manchester City.
Pep Guardiola named him in the starting lineup for the Champions League final defeat against Chelsea in Porto, but the prematch headlines were all about the City coach being prepared to let him move to another club this summer in order to sign Aston Villa star (and Sterling’s England teammate) Jack Grealish. Sterling managed just one goal in the final 16 games for City, prompting Guardiola to drop him on more than one occasion, but his performances for England have served as a reminder of his devastating ability to hurt opponents.
Sterling has had 14 attempts on goal in six games at Euro 2020 and tops the charts with 29 dribbles — three more than second-placed Kylian Mbappe. His partnership down the left flank with Manchester United full-back Luke Shaw has also been a major factor in England’s attacking success.
But Sterling has, and seemingly always will, find it difficult to earn the praise his performances deserve. He has divided opinion throughout his career for club and country, for both on-field and off-field reasons. At times, he has been a frustrating performer on the pitch, sometimes missing easy chances to score or play the crucial pass, but there is also a sense that he is still being judged by many for the manner in which he left Liverpool for City six years ago.
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A negative incident or story from the past sometimes proves impossible to shake off and, in Sterling’s case, the 26-year-old has never quite been able to convince his critics that stories of him demanding a bigger contract from Liverpool as a teenager, before leaving for City in 2015, were skewed to portray him as greedy and disrespectful to the club that gave him his big opportunity.
That “greedy” tag sometimes portrayed by the media and fans who continue to taunt him with “greedy bastard” chants, and the incident in November 2019, when Sterling was sent home from an England camp by Southgate following a scuffle with Joe Gomez, have tended to overshadow the positives in Sterling’s game and personality.
He has been an outspoken campaigner in the battle against racism in football and society, and has never shied away from highlighting the abuse that has been directed at himself and others. He has called for a player-led, anti-racism task force and spoken of racism as “the only disease right now.”
But while he has spoken out strongly about racism, sources at City have told ESPN that Sterling is “quiet and understated, really quite humble,” and that he is a member of the “captain’s group” at the club — senior players designated to raise issues with management on behalf of the squad.
One source has told ESPN that Sterling’s refusal to tip-toe around difficult subjects is why he divides opinion and is subjected to the hostility that others escape. Which is perhaps one reason why, as England prepare for their first major final since the 1966 World Cup — also at Wembley — Sterling’s role in the tournament is being overshadowed by a debate about whether he dived to win a penalty.
Former Denmark goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel called it a “really big mistake” by referee Danny Makkelie, while Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand said it was a “penalty that shouldn’t have been a penalty.” Sterling, however, insisted that defender Mathias Jensen did commit a foul to concede the penalty.
“I went into the box and he [Jensen] stuck his right leg out, and it touched my leg so it was a clear penalty,” Sterling said.
Television replays suggested marginal contact, but contact all the same, and it was enough to convince Makkelie that it was a penalty, which the video assistant referee did not overturn.
Only time will tell whether the incident becomes another long-term issue for Sterling to deal with, but whichever way it turns out, no player at Euro 2020 has had a better tournament than the one who grew up as a child within the shadow of Wembley Stadium.
This has been Sterling’s tournament and he deserves acclaim for his performances.