Given everything that’s happened over the past few weeks, you might reasonably expect Raheem Sterling to give a bit of bite back to the media or – just as understandably – to refuse to give anything at all at England’s pre-World Cup media day. You might even expect him to be in surly mood, or just obstructive. He would be within his rights to be.
It should really come as no surprise that the Manchester City attacker defies perception and expectation, though, as he makes it known that his main interest is England defying all perception and expectation. This is the thing with Sterling, who is courteous, likeable and smart… but not without a very striking assertiveness. He has far bigger concerns than media stories about his tattoo or his private life – something he allows to roll off him as “one of those things” – because he has far bigger ambitions.
Sterling believes only reaching a quarter-final, or even a semi-final, would be a failure.
“No, it won’t be good enough, at all, because you want to win it,” he asserts. “That’s the one thing I don’t like hearing, when someone says ‘we’ll see what happens, see what happens here, see what happens there’. Forget all of that. I’m not coming here to spend four, five, six weeks of my life to say ‘let’s see what happens and hopefully last 16’.”
This is something else about Sterling. By the time you spend even a short time in his company, you forget the rest of the nonsense around him, because he is so enthusiastic and engaging when talking about the game itself and what he can achieve it. It all fades to nothing against such fierce ambition, something that reflects his very mindset.
Even when reflecting on some of the coverage, though, Sterling shows a greater awareness than many of those who have criticised him. He says he can understand why a tattoo of an AK47 would attract negative attention without an explanation. More notably, he says he doesn’t feel picked on.
“No, I can see, most definitely, where they’re coming from, you can see a gun on someone’s leg, you are going to automatically think ‘what the hell are you doing’, and from my point, I’ve had that since August/September, I know there’s been pictures of it before so it’s just a case of why at this moment in time does it then get reported about.”
While some of the reporting of Sterling should provoke grander discussions about why a successful young black player is covered in the way he is, he himself has realised it won’t serve that success to dwell on it. He’s far more focused than that.
“Some things that started in pre-season and then, you know what, the season gets started, you kind of forget about it and then move on to football and it’s strictly football until the season finishes. It’s one of them… I don’t really take it personally.
“The boys have seen me round the place and, quite frankly, know that I haven’t been really bothered by it. It’s one of those things. They get reported and that’s it.
“Me and my mum and my agent sometimes talk. Little things like what happened the other day, people expect me to be really affected by it, you know. I just find I’ve been through harder stuff in my life to get down by that, so that’s the least of my worries. I’ve got a massive opportunity here with a great bunch of players to represent England at a World Cup, that’s my biggest focus now. And that tattoo [story] that goes by, it’s going to be spoken for one day, two days. Football is the most important thing now, I’ll just keep training and we’ll see.
“I don’t feel there’s an agenda, I wouldn’t personally say that. It’s just one of those things. It’s World Cup time and news is news. It’s put up. I don’t think it’s against me, I’m just focusing on my training sessions and doing well.
“You hear it for two days, you know, as long as it’s nothing about my kids, my mum, really it’s just another thing to let go past in the two-day span and get on with football. That’s the most important thing for me.”
Throughout all that, Sterling has developed to become probably England’s most important player other than Harry Kane, someone he is now developing a potentially crucial and lethal partnership with. This is also what strikes about the 23-year-old Premier League champion, who has so evolved under Pep Guardiola. He is very far from another perception of him, that image of a young player who turns up and plays off his instinct and talent. Sterling clearly thinks about the game a lot, as is revealed when he talks about his move back into the centre of the pitch, so he now wears the No 10 squad number for Russia.
It has more meaning for him than most, though, as shown with another revelation he smiles about.
“I know I shouldn’t mention it but I’ve got a tattoo of it on my arm!” he says of the No 10. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do: wear the number 10 for England.
“It’s something from my childhood. My two favourite numbers are seven and 10, from playing at QPR in the midfield area. I feel much more happy wearing that shirt and to be doing that at a World Cup with my country gives me that huge joy and feeling I can go and do well.
“It’s something I played as a kid, I was more central, then went to Liverpool and started watching these videos of Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, started doing step-overs, started developing my game that way, when I was more in and around the box, someone that takes two touches and shoots, not skills and had to change my game and that’s how I ended up on the wing.
“I feel, because I’m really fast, that’s one of the reasons I’ve been put out there, and [now] I’m closer to the goal and the area I want to be.
“I’ve played three, four games in that position behind the striker [for England]. Everyone’s getting on the ball, everyone’s wanted to get on the ball, showing angles, and you know making one and two-touch passes. It’s been really fluent.”
Sterling wants England to be more than fluent, though. He wants them to be forthright with the ball, to be more… “arrogant”. That’s what Sterling feels England have to work on now, to fine-tune, in the last two weeks before the Tunisia game. He cites the example of Real Madrid.
“I’d say probably just controlling games and being a bit more arrogant with the ball. I’m sorry to say it, but being more arrogant and more streetwise because we are coming up against some great teams and other countries have that streetwise mentality. They bring their play into it – you do what you have to do to win a game. Simple as that. Be streetwise and clever.
“You watch the Champions League final and Liverpool go 3-1 down and the way Madrid control the game. They have that winning mentality in big games, not doing anything silly. Not attacking all the time. They see the game out and once we get that I think we’ll be a really good team.”
A tournament-winning team? Sterling really doesn’t see why not. He’s greatly looking forward to the challenge.
“I am, especially with the season I’ve had in club football. Winning the Premier League is something I’ve always wanted to do so to achieve that, it’s massive, especially going into a World Cup. I think It’s huge – and we’re just trying to build as a team. We’re progressing really well.
“We’ve got 23 players here, 23 good players, very good players, and you know we all have the mentality to say that we’re going to win the games that we win, what can stop us? You know. It’s one of those, I don’t want to be the one to be like ‘em, yeah’… no.
“Every player wants to win the World Cup, every country wants to win the World Cup so anything less than that is not really a bonus. Of course you can take positives out of everything but you won’t be entirely happy if you don’t win it, no.”
And with that, you realise what actually matters to Sterling.
This is a player who no one can ever accuse of slackness, or a modern footballer’s perceived frivolity. He takes the job more seriously than anyone. Whatever about why he’s covered in the way he is, that focus is why Sterling has been a success. It is why he is one of the players best equipped to deliver England to success.
He shows a mindset every other player should try to replicate.