Football: Sterling learns to shake off haters

Manchester City star is ignoring fans' bile, maturing into key player for club and country

LONDON • Raheem Sterling strode into a sunlit room at Manchester City's sprawling academy, shook hands politely, then offered a killer quip.

"Is that really 14 questions?" he said, peering at a paper on the table with its long list of possible inquiries, before breaking into laughter.

The England international winger maintained this open manner during an interview that took in his often crass treatment in the news pages of some publications, as well as the death of his father in Kingston, Jamaica, when Raheem was still a child.

The way Sterling discussed himself, his career and image reveals a 22-year-old who is fast maturing. The response to the criticism he received at the turn of the year offered an illustration.

In January, one tabloid decided to highlight that Sterling ate a sausage roll and had the temerity to eat it in a "£500,000 (S$880,000) limited edition Bentley".

Sterling laughed it off with an Instagram post that highlighted the story with the simple question: "What's my life come 2?" along with three laughing emojis.

Raheem Sterling is aiming to improve his season goals tally from 11 goals to about 15-16 per season.
Raheem Sterling is aiming to improve his season goals tally from 11 goals to about 15-16 per season. PHOTO: REUTERS

INSTANT DISLIKE

I've got that face. You know when you see someone on TV and go, 'I don't like him?' Some people have that face and I've got it.

STERLING, on his mug.

"I see it and think, 'Why does that story have to be about me?' " he said with bemusement.

"If you're doing something wrong, yeah, no problem. But there's these times when you've been thinking about football, been at home, just trying to stay out of everyone's way, and you're still getting stuff.

"I see it as I can't win."

Sterling's explanation for why he can be unfairly criticised is charmingly self-deprecating.

"I've got that face," he said, laughing. "You know when you see someone on TV and go, 'I don't like him?' Some people have that face and I've got it. I can't do anything about it. The 'I don't like' face."

Pep Guardiola, his manager, is particularly supportive. During Euro 2016, the Spaniard telephoned him after Sterling had dubbed himself "The Hated One" on Instagram following England's opener against Russia, in which he struggled to put in a good performance and was blasted by fans.

He says: "It was massive - every player wants to feel welcome and he (Guardiola) did that from the first moment. It is a massive bonus."

One high-stakes match Sterling did shine in was England's opening 2014 World Cup encounter with Italy in Manaus. Although England lost, Sterling took Italy's defenders apart in a Man-of-the-Match display. He was only 19 and said his late father drove him on.

"It was a massive game for me," he said. "I just thought to myself, 'If only my dad was here.' I need to play well for him because he's never seen me on a football pitch. I was just so determined to do well.

"Performing for my dad does drive me on. Especially in big games, massive games. Like the (FA Cup) semi-final against Arsenal coming up. Whenever it comes to an important day like that he always runs through my head."

The FA Cup semi-final against Arsene Wenger's side is on April 23 at Wembley. But before that date with the Gunners, City travel to the Emirates today in the Premier League.

Sterling, who scored the winner in December's reverse fixture, has never scored more than 11 goals in a club season. He is currently on nine and enters joke mode again to criticise himself for not having more.

"I should have so many more goals. It's terrible," he says.

"I should be on about 15-16 goals right now and that's what I need to do to get to the player I want to be.

"I know I'm joking and laughing here - but I take that very seriously. Next year I'm getting there, 100 per cent."

THE GUARDIAN

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 02, 2017, with the headline 'Sterling learns to shake off haters'. Print Edition | Subscribe