London (AFP) – Raheem Sterling will complete a remarkable journey from vilified scapegoat to England legend if the forward inspires his side to victory in Sunday’s Euro 2020 final against Italy.
Sterling has been England’s most influential player during their historic run to a first major final in 55 years.
Gareth Southgate’s side are one win away from clinching England’s first European Championship title and their second major prize after the 1966 World Cup.
If England are to make history at Wembley this weekend, they need Sterling to unleash his pace and trickery on the Italians.
The 26-year-old was the catalyst for England’s 2-1 semi-final win against Denmark on Wednesday.
He forced the own-goal equaliser from Simon Kjaer, then, with England labouring to break down the Danish defence in extra time, it was Sterling who took the fight to them with his incisive raids.
Sterling’s persistence eventually drew a foul from Joakim Maehle, earning the penalty from which Harry Kane netted the winner after his initial effort was saved.
Sterling had already scored England’s first three goals in the tournament and provided the assist for Kane’s quarter-final opener against Ukraine, repaying Southgate’s faith after a difficult season with Premier League champions Manchester City.
When Sterling started England’s first group game against Croatia, there were some who claimed it was a mistake to pick him instead of Jack Grealish.
The critics pointed to Sterling’s tame display in City’s Champions League final defeat against Chelsea and his long spells on the bench for Pep Guardiola’s team.
But Southgate is a firm believer in Sterling’s “incredible resilience and hunger” and the forward rose to the occasion with England’s winner against Croatia.
It was his first goal in a major tournament after some wretched experiences on the biggest international stages.
His lowest ebb came at Euro 2016 when England fans turned on him after a series of lacklustre performances, culminating in the humiliating exit against Iceland.
– Fearless and eloquent –
On social media, Sterling branded himself the “hated one” during that tournament and he had to deal with negative stories in the press about his perceived lavish lifestyle.
The backlash could have ruined someone with a more fragile personality, but Sterling’s tough upbringing prepared him for football’s slings and arrows.
Sterling was born in Jamaica and was just two years old when his father was shot dead in Kingston.
Aged five, Sterling and his sister moved to London to be reunited with their mother Nadine Clark, who left Jamaica shortly after their father’s death.
Life was hard in Brent — where he lived just a stone’s throw from Wembley — and Sterling recalls: “My mum was working as a cleaner at some hotels to make extra money so she could pay for her degree.
“I’ll never forget waking up at five in the morning before school and helping her clean the toilets at the hotel.”
Gang culture on St Raphael’s estate was another potential pitfall but Sterling ignored street life to focus on football.
Sterling had to ride three buses across London to reach his training sessions with QPR as young teenager.
That commitment reaped its reward when Liverpool signed him before his 15th birthday in 2010.
Sterling has been one of English football’s most captivating figures ever since, both on the pitch and off it, where he has emerged has a fearless and eloquent voice in the fight against racism.
After his problems with City, Sterling has found comfort in the warm embrace of the empathetic Southgate, while his proximity to his old home in north London clearly inspired his England performances.
“There are a lot of different reasons I haven’t scored for my club and that’s totally irrelevant now,” Sterling said pointedly earlier in the tournament.
“I’m here with England, I’m enjoying my football and that’s the most important thing.”
Paying homage to his past, Sterling has Wembley’s iconic arch tattooed on his arm.
If Southgate’s side lift the trophy on Sunday, Sterling’s standing as an England great will be etched indelibly in the hearts of the fans who once disowned him.
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