Raheem Sterling knows more than most about the effects of racism in football. In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports’ Gary Neville – who coached him with England – the Manchester City forward opens up on his experiences and explains how the current anti-racism movement can inspire change – not just in football but in society as a whole.
Gary Neville: “It’s an exciting time, we’re on the brink of football restarting, but I want to start with racism and what’s been going on in the last few weeks. Can you just give me an overview of your current thoughts, emotions and feelings?”
Raheem Sterling: “At this moment in time, and I feel like I’m speaking for most black people, everyone is tired. A lot of people have been screaming for help in different areas of our society.
“With the protesting that’s going on, you saw what happened in America now transferring to the UK, a lot people have been in silence. It’s about using this opportunity as a moment to be one and try to get not just answers, but changes in society.
“It’s people like myself who have a platform to get the message into the right places and have these conversations that can spark change. I’m not someone with the most ideas in the world. I don’t know exactly what to do. But we have to highlight what these people are facing every day in aspects of their lives and that’s what I’m trying to replicate and do.”
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Neville: “You made a statement after being racially abused at Chelsea about 18 months ago where you talked about the racial stereotyping that existed in the media. Do you think that’s improved as we sit here today?”
Sterling: “I do truly believe it is improving. But I think it’s something that needed to be highlighted. It wasn’t to take shots at anyone. It was just an observation from myself and I thought, ‘if I sit down and let this happen to me or someone else, it’ll be a trend that continuously happens’.
“I feel like a lot of journalists now have the responsibility to write more appropriate stuff with more appropriate wording, so I do feel like we’re getting better and will get better in that aspect.”
Unfair treatment on England duty
Neville: “I want to take you back to Euro 2016. Do you remember asking for a one-on-one meeting with me?”
Sterling: “The reason I did ask you that day is because you’re someone that I truly did respect and someone that I have looked up to for a long time. As everyone knows, I was a Manchester United fan growing up, so that’s one of the reasons I did ask to speak to you.”
Neville: “Are you willing to share what you said to me that day?”
Sterling: “I can’t exactly remember what it was word-for-word, but it was along the lines of feeling like I was being targeted for no reason. I couldn’t find the reason and I wanted advice on what to do and you did give me good advice on the day.”
Neville: “You did talk about the abuse and the discrimination that you felt, and that you felt you were being targeted, but when I look back on that meeting now and I think of the words I returned to you, I feel like I let you down.
“I feel like my primary thought was about how other players had suffered abuse, whether it be Paul Gascoigne or David Beckham or Wayne Rooney, but I now recognise and feel like that was totally inappropriate. I failed to recognise the personal side.
“Those players were receiving abuse for football errors or football performances. You were receiving targeted abuse that was constant before a ball had been kicked at the tournament. I do feel like in that moment, the response that I gave you was inadequate, and I feel sorry for that.
“You were 21 at the time and it does beg the question, where do young black players who feel the same way go to in football for that help?”
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Sterling: “That’s exactly the question I’ve been asking. For example, I came to you out of respect, but at the same time, you don’t have the feeling or understanding of what it’s like. I was 21 and I think it was only my second tournament, so I didn’t even really understand myself what was going on.
“It was only when I went to the World Cup [in 2018] and I had the same thing about my tattoo that I understood. I’d had the tattoo done in the previous September. I’d played a whole season of football with it, I’d had training sessions where the tattoo had been revealed, and yet [the media] wait until three or four weeks before we kick a ball at the biggest tournament for our country.
“So I kind of understood at that moment that it’s not about my tattoo, it’s not what they’re making it out to be, it’s much bigger than this. I actually took it upon myself to say to myself, not that I was being targeted, but that there is a bit of discrimination going on here because there is no way I can have a tattoo for a full nine to 10 months and then all of a sudden it’s the biggest deal in the world. That’s when I started to take more caution and understanding of what exactly is going on.
“So touching on your point, the exact question we have been asking, young players like myself, is who do we go to to speak on these topics and ask for help?”
Experiencing racism in dressing rooms
Neville: “Do you feel racism exists in dressing rooms? You’ve played at two of the biggest clubs in the country in Liverpool and Manchester City, and with England. Do you feel you and other black players have experienced it and still experience it within dressing rooms in football?
Sterling: “Yes, there are sly remarks for sure.”
Neville: “And that still goes on today?”
Sterling: “It goes on today, but a lot of the boys now with England and Manchester City shut that down in the dressing room. It is in a jokey way but at the same time, people have to understand that if you haven’t felt it, you don’t really know what it means to the person you’re saying it to. Some people will take it on the chin and have a laugh but at the same time, it’s not acceptable. I can’t say it’s been happening too recently but it has happened in the past where I’ve heard sly remarks in dressing rooms.”
Neville: “Do you feel with what’s happened in the last few weeks, this is the biggest moment of change in the fight against racism?”
Sterling: “I do believe it’s something that’s coming up a lot more often, which is a good thing. The situation that happened last year with me [the racial abuse at Chelsea], had its time and kind of went, and this has come back up again.
“I truly do believe that now is the time we have to act. I’m doing my bit behind the scenes and a lot people have said to me, ‘you’ve been quiet on social media, you haven’t been posting a lot’ and I’ve said to everyone who has asked me that question, ‘what is going to happen with me posting three pictures on social media? What’s that going to change?’
“So I have been doing my homework. Me and my team are working and we are making good strides to have these conversations that will spark a change.”
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Neville: “When you talked about acting previously, you [said] walking off the pitch isn’t something you would like to do because that would allow the racists to win. Do you feel differently about that today than you did when you said that a few months ago?”
Sterling: “First and foremost, I love myself, I love my skin colour and on a match day, the most important thing to me is to win a football match. That is how I’ve grown up. It’s the first thought in my head, so I don’t change on that side of it.
“If there were players who didn’t want to play a game, I’m with them for sure. For example, if we decided that as a collective, I would have to do the collective thing. But for me personally, I would want to stay on the pitch and help to win that football match.”
Missing Kompany; restarting against Arsenal
Neville: “In terms of Manchester City, Raheem, you’ve fallen behind Liverpool this season having had two wonderful seasons. How big of an influence on and off the pitch and how big of a miss do you think Vincent Kompany has been?”
Sterling: “Vinny is someone I still speak to quite a lot and he is honestly one of the best people to have in the dressing room. He brings energy, he lifts everyone and lifts the mood. If, for example, we had a bad game last week, the next week, he would be the first person who is raising everyone’s spirits. He would be the first person making sure everyone is on their job .
“For someone who was at this football club for so long, he understands exactly what it stands for and he’s a winner. He’s someone that wants to win, he puts 150 per cent in every single day and that’s no word of a lie. Even if he can’t, he’ll tell you he can. He’s definitely been a massive miss.”
Neville: “In terms of coronavirus, it’s been a challenging time over the last three months, hopefully something we’ll never experience again, where people have been in lockdown. How have you handled it personally?”
Sterling: “I’d say the first two or three weeks, I enjoyed having the time off because [as a footballer] you’re always away from your family.
“It’s one of those memories you cherish, being able to help out with the kids in the morning, change the nappies and bottles, and it’s one of those things I truly did enjoy. But towards the end, I can’t say the exact same because I was desperate to get back and be on the football pitch.”
Neville: “What have Pep’s messages been to you personally but also to the team in terms of how this season has gone and what you’re going to do once you restart?”
Sterling: “The message since we have got back has been to find something within ourselves. It’s going to be difficult to play in empty stadiums and we’ve got to find something in ourselves to be winners, to keep fighting. We’ve got to find that adrenaline from somewhere – it’s got to come from deep within.
“We’ve spoken about playing in the garden when you’re 10 and there’s no fans there. You wanted to win every single game with your friends and it’s no different at this moment in time. We’ve been doing this since we were kids, so that’s been the message since we’ve been back.”
Neville: “You’re up against a coach you know well on Wednesday night in Mikel Arteta. Can you talk about the influence he had on you and at Manchester City?”
Sterling: “He’s had a massive influence on everyone here at City, including myself. He’s someone who dedicated all of his time to try and improve players here. He’s been a massive miss, and a great plus for Arsenal. We expect a challenge because he’s someone who knows every detail about our game, but at the same time, we’re ready and focused on trying to get a result.”
Neville: “Can you give us an inkling as to how excited you are that football is returning?”
Sterling: “I’m really looking forward to it, to finally being on the grass, getting kicked left, right and centre and hopefully putting the ball in the back of the net.”