Joe Butterfield explores the genesis of an obsessive and weird persecution.
Manchester City were defeated this weekend. A team which has often looked like a man in a league full of boys has finally shown, in the Premier League, they can still be beaten. Maurizio Sarri’s team weathered an initial storm of sky-blue dominance and scored with their solitary first-half attack, going on to play with authority and, ultimately, thoroughly deserve the win. Liverpool are top of the table after a full round of fixtures, ruining the league and destroying all sense of competition with a one-point lead.
This, you would think, would be the major talking point. A collective mainstream media so desperate to see a “proper title race” should be basking in the aftermath of every journalist’s second team (and in many cases, first team) being top of the table. Instead, sadly, we’re talking about Raheem Sterling yet again.
As the ball went out of play during the game, Raheem went over to pick up the ball. Five or six men, each of them surely no younger than 30 years old, one or two at least a couple of decades older than that, then began to scream abuse at Sterling despite the fact he’d actually done nothing but pick up a football. Now, don’t get me wrong, that in itself is not a problem. It’s thoroughly idiotic but a football ground is a strange place. I’ve told dozens of footballers that they are more than welcome to exit the ground (using colourful language in the process), all from the safety of my seat on the second row from the back of the bottom tier.
Yet this wasn’t just simply telling Sterling where to go or telling him that he’s bad. This was, as it so often is with the best English player in the league right now, racist abuse. Allegedly. I have to say that because it’s technically not been proven what the man said and nobody’s been punished yet (at the time of writing). Having said that, it doesn’t take a professional lip-reader to see the words “black c***” being screamed with real vitriol from a man who’s probably going to go to work on Monday and laugh and joke with his black co-workers, as if this isn’t how he spends his weekends.
Thankfully, Matthew Syed spotted this and put the video on Twitter, where it quickly went viral as multiple journalists and big news outlets tweeted out the video too. It’s refreshing to see the reaction to abuse aimed at Raheem Sterling be almost universally met with disapproval and disgust. But this wasn’t always the case.
I remember the first bit of negative press I saw aimed at Raheem Sterling – it was during one of the international breaks in the 2014/15 season. Roy Hodgson threw him under the bus by telling the media that Sterling had actually pulled out of a game vs Estonia due to being tired and the media pounced on it straight away. “How committed is he to his country?” was the cry from talkSPORT. “If he doesn’t want to play for England then he can get lost!” yelled Billy Brexit. Of course, this wasn’t just a simple matter of a player wanting to look after himself in the grand scheme of a full season, having played every game up to that point at the age of 19. No, it’s just a typical, lazy black kid who’s let the money get to his head and thinks he’s above representing his country. He’s not even English, he’s Jamaican. He’s not one of us.
The same issue reared its head again over the Christmas period that same season when Brendan Rodgers, despite lambasting Hodgson for making the media aware of Sterling’s situation only months before, told everybody that he was letting Sterling have a week off to stop him from being exhausted. Cue the same outpouring of indignant rage.
This was how it started, as far as I could tell. Then came Sterling’s departure from Liverpool and a whole new can of worms was opened. Liverpool are a grand footballing institution. Illustrious history litters Anfield and famous European nights await. Why would anybody want to leave?
Ah, of course. It’s money. Liverpool, embittered by the refusal from Raheem when a £100,000 per week contract had been offered, immediately briefed the media on the terms they’d offered the 20-year-old. If he’d turned down £100,000 per week then it must have been because Manchester City were offering more money. It probably had nothing to do with the fact that very same team had pipped the scousers to a title only a year beforehand. It probably had nothing to do with the promise of Pep Guardiola’s arrival in a year’s time. Why would that matter more than money?
The point is, the media agenda had been set. With the likes of Carragher, Gerrard, Rush and Aldridge fuelling the fire. “Keep your mouth shut” said Carragher. “Raheem and Jordan [Henderson] are on different ends of the scale. Jordan is so professional, he’s a great lad” said Gerrard, implying that Raheem is the exact opposite of “professional” or “a great lad”. “The lad has disappeared up his own backside” said Aldridge. “Manchester City were always going to get him because of the money” said Rush.
The club’s hatchet job sparked by the bitterness of knowing that for the second season in a row they’d lose their best player, this time to a league rival, had long-lasting effects. The money-grabbing player narrative had been laid out by Liverpool and the likes of The Sun and The Daily Mail, already gunning for the Jamaican-born Sterling, had the perfect fuel for their fire.
Since then, a slew of articles from the tabloids have been written, month after month, in some cases week after week. A thread summing up the abuse has been perfectly laid out by Adam Keyworth on Twitter.
This has been going on since Sterling left Liverpool and for a couple of years nobody outside the City bubble really cared. After a disappointing Euros tournament plenty were more than happy to pile on Sterling for spending his money to buy his mum a house after he didn’t win the tournament for England, despite being booed nearly every time he put the shirt on. Only in the last year or so have both the wider footballing community and most mainstream journalists started to speak up about the ridiculousness of the systematic, racist abuse that Raheem Sterling has received over the last 3-4 years.
Sterling has reacted to this latest incident at the Chelsea match with a post on Instagram, posted alongside two recent media headlines.
Admirably, he doesn’t actually directly address anything about himself. Instead, he references one headline written about Tosin Adarabioyo, one of City’s academy products who bought his mum a house. The headline points out that he did this despite having never played a Premier League game, which is naturally the benchmark that all men must reach before they can buy their mum a house. This was compared to a headline about Phil Foden doing the same thing for his mum, with nothing beyond the fact he’d bought the house even mentioned. No caveat for the white kid, for none is needed.
Raheem’s caption sums up everything we’ve all been directing at the tabloids ever since these articles have been written. They’ve created an environment, nationally, where some people have learned to think that black people don’t deserve success. Young, successful black footballers specifically should refrain from spending money, as living a bling lifestyle is something they apparently don’t deserve. Success is something only reserved for white people.
Similar articles were written about Mario Balotelli during his time at Manchester City and, whilst some of this was brought on himself with things like setting fire to his own bathroom and lighting fireworks in his own house, it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t a racial element involved there too. The media has an obsession with the private lives of certain players and, whilst it’s true that articles have also been written about the private lives of Rooney, Terry, Beckham, Gascoigne and more, they’ve all been for noteworthy, negative reasons. None of them have ever been lambasted for buying a pasty from Greggs.
It’s taken years for Raheem to finally snap and do something about it and part of me hopes that this will spark a real change in the media but I know it won’t. Not really. They’ll go quiet for a few months, maybe even a year or two, but the same articles will return eventually unless something is done at the top.
The media is ultimately to blame here. The Daily Mail and The Sun are the outlets who are smearing him at any given opportunity. They’re the ones writing articles looking down on him for going to Poundland to buy batteries whilst also being disgusted that he has enough money to buy an expensive car that he doesn’t get cleaned every day. They’re the ones who have given the likes of Stoke fans, Norwich fans and Burnley fans a reason to boo him, despite the fact that Sterling has never done anything directly to their clubs or fanbases. Their stall was set out the moment Sterling decided that he was too tired to play against Estonia in 2014 as they took their aim at a young boy who wasn’t even born in this country who had, in their eyes, turned his back on it by refusing to represent it. With that said, in this case if the media is a bonfire then Liverpool is a canister of petrol.
The club obviously didn’t target Sterling for any reasons motivated by race. They have, however, given those in the media who are looking for excuses to pile in on a young, successful black man (and they were definitely looking for excuses) the perfect money-shaped ammunition to fire in his direction. In the months following Sterling’s transfer to Manchester City, they normalised the abuse he received across the nation. He was booed at nearly every ground across the country in his first season at City for having the audacity to leave Liverpool and it’s impossible to dispute that the likes of the Daily Mail and The Sun have capitalised on this hatred.
Now, in the aftermath of these years of articles and now direct abuse caught on camera at yesterday’s game, Liverpool fans are willing to humble themselves and say that he’s a nice lad who doesn’t deserve it. And they’re right. But large segments of the fanbase, and the club as a whole, made sure that Sterling had a terrible time both in the mainstream media and on social media in the year or two following his departure. They’ve made sure that everybody arrived at the same money-grabbing, immature, self-obsessed conclusion regarding his personality and the racist sections of the media have taken this narrative and run with it to suit their own agenda.