In Good Conscience

Sterling's Grenfell Tower donation touches a chord

You do not need any sporting association to feel the horror that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London in the early hours of Wednesday.

Whoever we are, wherever we first saw the images, the speed with which those flames incinerated a 24-floor building which housed up to 600 people must affect us all.

It reminded us of the broadcast of the burning World Trade Centre twin towers in New York on Sept 11, 2001.

Except that this was no deliberate act by terrorists. Exactly how the fire started and what caused it to spread so quickly, trapping so many residents, will not be known until the official investigation ends and the findings are made public.

Media reports have centred on this happening in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest housing areas not just of London but in the world.

But that is misleading. The burnt-out building overlooked both riches and poverty.

From its upper floors you could see Wembley Stadium's arch, less than 10 kilometres away. From the ground level, you could easily walk to Queens Park Rangers' Loftus Road football stadium, about 11/2 kilometres away.

In fact, Tony Fernandes, the Malaysian co-chairman of QPR, very quickly opened up the stadium for use as a relief centre once the donations of food, clothing and other essentials began to pour in.

Raheem Sterling, a migrant who grew up in similar circumstances to those who perished in the west London fire, was deeply moved by the tragedy. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

At the same time, Raheem Sterling, the Manchester City and England winger, put his hand in his pocket to make a significant personal financial donation to the fund.

Sterling knows that there, but for the grace of God, he might well have been sleeping during the inferno.

Sterling is, so far, the most famous of the tens of thousands for whom that area of London was supposed to have been a refuge from hardship and dangers far away.

Raheem Shaquille Sterling was born 7,500km away in Kingston, Jamaica. He was brought to north London by his mother Nadine when he was five.

His father stayed behind in Kingston, and was shot dead in a gangland-infested district when Raheem was nine.

North London was to this mother and son what it was to many of the families who became victims of this week's fire - a search for a better, safer, life.

Football was Sterling's obsession even before he left Jamaica, and before his family could afford to buy him a ball. He apparently kicked around a fruit drink carton in the living room.

Fast forward from there to North Kensington. It sounds posh, and it is just a couple of Tube stops away from Kensington Palace and from Harrods, the famous store.

Sterling, indeed, drives to work in a limited-edition Bentley GTX 700-4 which reportedly would set you back S$880,000, if you could get one.

Whatever the undisclosed amount the player has paid into the victims' fund, he can afford.

That doesn't make it any less sincere.

This is a young man, still only 22, whose potential was spotted by QPR when he was still a child. Small, swift, brave and possessed with the ball was how Queens Park scouts saw him and recruited him.

By the time he was 14, he was playing with men in Rangers' reserves. Not many months after that, he was on his way to Liverpool's academy for a down payment of around S$1 million.

What Liverpool had to do was tame his wild side, and channel his gifted nature. England soon cottoned on to the evolving Sterling, and it is highly possible that he might never give a more thrilling performance than when he sped - danced - down the wing against Italy in the 2014 World Cup Finals in Manaus, Brazil.

Sterling is still on that journey of self-discovery. His coach today is Pep Guardiola. Manchester City paid Liverpool what will amount to S$86.5 million when he ticks all the boxes in the contract, and pays the forward a salary of more than $300,000 per week, making him the third (or perhaps fourth or fifth given City's summer recruiting) highest-paid player at the club - after Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero.

Reports described his move to City in 2015 as the highest fee paid between English clubs for an English player. Strictly speaking, he is adopted English, via the West Indies and via the immigrant community spread around tower blocks like Grenfell.

"This is a deep and sad situation," Sterling told the BBC. "It is one that's close to my heart and hard to swallow. I would like to help in the best way I can.

"It is only a small step, but small steps lead to big changes if we all come together."

Giving money, offering condolences, are all that Raheem Sterling can do in the immediate aftermath of the fire. The full extent of the horror, the gruesome task of counting the dead and somehow trying to identify them still lies before the authorities.

Sterling is, so far, the most famous of the tens of thousands for whom that area of London was supposed to have been a refuge from hardship and dangers far away.

The victims of the fire include, we now know, at least one family who fled the war in Syria.

Grenfell Tower was supposed to be their haven. The area around that now godforsaken monstrosity was the springboard for one gifted, very fortunate youngster to grow up and explore his potential.

Raheem Sterling no longer lives there.

But credit him for not forgetting or ignoring those who do, and those, alas, who were burned alive simply for being there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2017, with the headline 'Sterling's Grenfell Tower donation touches a chord'. Print Edition | Subscribe