Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 July 2019

Public opinion appears to turn for Raheem Sterling but will this be a watershed moment?

Manchester City player responded on social media to alleged racist abuse at Stamford Bridge and should be praised for his persistent grace under fire

Raheem Sterling was the victim of reportedly racist abuse during Manchester City's Premier League match at Chelsea. Getty 
Raheem Sterling was the victim of reportedly racist abuse during Manchester City's Premier League match at Chelsea. Getty 

What was the most shocking part about Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling being racially abused at Chelsea on Saturday during one of the biggest Premier League games of the season?

Was it that this kind of abuse still goes on 25 years after the noble Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football campaign began in the UK? Or that the attack happened in front of a worldwide television audience? Or, perhaps, that its perpetrator acted with apparent impunity?

None of the above. As Sterling said in a dignified social media posting after the abuse, “I don’t expect no better”, a comment informed by having had to put up with a series of nasty infractions over several years. Previous offences against him include the time in 2016 when he was confronted by an angry Liverpool fan who verbally abused Sterling after the Reds had been beaten in the League Cup final by Manchester City. In 2017, he was attacked and racially abused before a match with Tottenham Hotspur. Earlier this year, he was widely criticised for one of his tattoos.

No, the most stunning part of the whole affair is that the “37 minutes and 10 seconds” moment, as it has been dubbed, is that it appears to have finally coalesced a groundswell of opinion that Sterling has been wronged, which genuinely feels like too little too late.

I should declare I am partial in all of this. As a City fan, it has been a privilege to watch Sterling become a world-class player under Pep Guardiola. He now fits the cliches that tend to attach themselves to great players, like "first name on the team sheet" and a player who regularly scores vital goals at key moments in big games.

For their part, Chelsea have said that the fan who appeared to mouth a three-word racist obscenity at Sterling in the 38th minute of the game will be banned if the video evidence stands up. The London club is right to follow due process, but it also feels like heels are being dragged. The Mail Online reported the suggestion that the fan may have said “Manc” rather than “black” as the middle word of his foul-mouthed volley to Sterling, which appears to extend an extraordinary benefit of the doubt where none is due.

Whether the fan is banned or not, I doubt that it will change the view of many supporters who continue to believe that players are somehow fair game for any abuse hurled at them and then act as the wronged party if a player has the temerity to react to that offence. This explains why Sterling said he had to “laugh” on Saturday night and he has come to “expect no better”. He should be praised for his persistent grace under fire.

Sterling has also called out the print media for its unequal coverage of the lifestyles of black and white Premier League players, citing the way one newspaper lopsidedly reported how two of his City colleagues chose to the spend their money. The player has been the target of a long and insidious campaign to damage his reputation.

In 2015, then Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers had to plead with the club’s supporters not to abuse Sterling before the club’s final game of the season. The player’s offence? Asking for a move. In the event, Rodgers left him out, Liverpool lost the game and even then the player was picked on by his own supporters in the players’ tunnel. He joined City a few months later.

Watching the World Cup last summer, I was amazed by how Sterling was a lightning rod for criticism. While other players were praised for their work-rate and effort in what was a broadly successful campaign, Sterling was criticised for being lazy and wasteful, despite outsprinting all but one of his England teammates and conceding possession fewer times than other players, according to BBC data. When he was subbed in the semi-final against Croatia, England wilted.

Writing in The Guardian, former player Stan Collymore believes the support for Sterling will soon pass and the racism will continue, “if not tomorrow then certainly in the days and weeks that follow”.

I’d be inclined to agree. Cycles of abuse are rarely smashed, abusers rarely change their habits – but let’s hope this really is a watershed moment. Sterling deserves so much better than he has had to endure.

Updated: December 10, 2018 05:34 PM

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