Almost racist tone of Raheem Sterling criticism is not football
The view of a disgruntled English journalist - how this scapegoating diminishes us all
Raheem Sterling has been targeted by English fans and media, during and following their Euro 2016 campaign. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Weak, shameful, craven, immature, shiftless, gloating. Let’s face it, the wider mainstream media response to England going out of the Euros really has been a disgrace to our once-brave nation.
What a grim spectacle the English are in defeat these days. And not just for the complex and thrillingly sustained layers of fury, innuendo and full-on bullshit. But for the loss of scale too. One of the best bits of being out of England when England go out is the clear evidence that in the wider world no one really cares. No tournament hopes are ever seriously built around expectations of a thrilling England team, no other nation’s enjoyment notably diminished by their departure.
We’re not the good guys. We’re not the main characters. We’re not even the main villains. We’re disposable patsies, third bad guy from the left behind Alan Rickman with a machine gun and power-ballad hair. Our role is to hang around and then die cinematically. And in this case England did exactly that by going out in fairytale and - let’s face it - very funny fashion. In at least one Parisian bar people were openly laughing during the Iceland game at every misplaced pass and wild shot, genuinely enjoying the spectacle.
Not so in England of course, where a familiar process is in train. There has been a change of tone here. Once it was enough to blame some external factor - referees, managers, Germans - for England’s failure to win. Now though it seems - for reasons of unhappiness, envy and indeterminate rage - it is necessary to blame and hound and aggressively belittle the players.
Roy got his of course, even before he’d turned up at his press conference looking like the final detainee in an extended supermarket hostage release saga, wild-eyed and skinny and frightened behind his plinth, looking like he’d spent the last six months eating tinned soup in a state of increasing dependence on his charismatic captors.
Roy was never going to be enough. It had to be the players too. There are three main routes of attack here. The first is outright spiteful muck-raking, the suggestion that defeat is a consequence of complete moral, personal and spiritual collapse. England’s players have already been convicted of, in no specific order, greed, yobbery, ornate plumbing, owning a telephone, wearing headphones, going to parties, being soft-skinned fancy-boys, having inappropriately attractive girlfriends, and generally revealing themselves to be overgrown men-child monsters.
Two days after defeat in Nice the Daily Mail’s London office published a hastily googled schedule of the full range of England player shame, from Adam Lallana’s Nivea deal (face cream wanker), to Tottenham’s Kyle Walker: excellent pro, family man and also (it says here) “hippy crack idiot”.
Plus of course it has been the usual open-season on Raheem Sterling, a decent, talented, rather jaded 21-year-old who really doesn’t deserve the rubbish thrown his way. As ever Sterling’s private life was snickeringly bullet-pointed, complete with the usual knowing, loaded sneers. Playboy. Had a kid at 17. Are you thinking what we’re thinking? The next day we learned, accompanied by much phoney outrage, about the house he’s bought his mother. In the same newspaper a picture of Sterling was used to illustrate a story about an unconnected drug dealer
It is important to remember it is not sports journalists doing this, almost all of whom will be privately appalled, but who will still get flak for what is a wider “news” agenda.
This is an awkward subject to write about, but the language deserves to be called out. Lavish ? flash ? blinged-up ? bragging ? crystal-encrusted ? brother ? baby ? the lights and shit ? the big daddy Rangey ? send him home ? rename the national team. You could jump to some conclusions here couldn’t you? I’ve no doubt this isn’t intended as “racist”. It isn’t that extreme. But if I feel a little creeped out by its tone and texture there’s no doubt others must too. Football at its best brings people together, dissolves division, suggests a kind of ideal meritocracy. This is not football at its best.
Not that Sterling is the first England player to be treated with hostility and eventually booed by his own fans. Either way division, acrimony, alienation, dog whistle sneering: as we’ve seen in the last week these are dangerous things.
So, bad, people then. But also weak people. Another despairing suggestion is that England’s players are part of the soft, moneyed academy generation and have therefore lost their basic self-reliance and toughness. Our brave roaring lions have been replaced by cowardly Wizard of Oz-style lions with fey speaking voices and flicky tails they twirl as they prance about performing song and dance numbers. Hence the meltdown in Nice, the inability to make hard decisions, bend the game their way. Too infantilised, too middle-class, too boarding-schooled. We don’t like it up us.
And yet the real point here is that none of this actually matters. I happen to think English footballers underachieve (very slightly) because the players have too little, not too much education. They don’t travel much. They don’t speak languages or study. In fact they’re not middle class enough. Like that small section of England’s fans, wherever they go it’s always a corner of England, flag wrapped around the cafe tables, unable to toast the bread, unable to understand the PA, frightened, sullen.
Again this is just my prejudice speaking, another narrative pulled out of the sky, just like the vile man-monster narrative and the cosseted matron-fetishist narrative. We are essentially shouting at ourselves here. Sport is won and lost on details, from which you might find a story that fits. Or in England’s case, a story that shifts blame from the almost overwhelming issue of our collective responsibility for how well or badly the national sport is run, an issue that takes in schools, public space, neoliberal economics, apathy, an entertainingly destructive league and a century of wider shared societal decisions.
In the end the players are us and we are them. Like ill-mannered parents enraged by their ill-mannered kids we stand there wondering why these normal, receptive human beings - not the best, but not the worst - play with such fear and angst in a knife-edge fine-detail knockout game ringed by hostile faces.
You get the players you deserve, that you can be bothered to make. Accepting this might not make them any better. But it would at least allow us to move away from a divisive and alienating aftermath. Mainly, though, lay off Raheem, eh? Defeat on the pitch is one thing. This kind of insistent, oddly pointed scapegoating diminishes us all.