THWACK. (The patchy ball rebounds off the wall, you crack it first time with your untied laces, dirty water slaps your calf and shin and thigh.) THWACK. (The patchy ball rebounds off the wall— “I’ve told you, dinner’s ready”, your mum shouts from the front door. It’s 6.45pm. You’ve been kicking the ball against that wall outside your house since 3.45pm.) THWACK. (“FINE, I’m—) THWACK. (coming”).
“I think that’s where I learned my basics. That's where I fell in love with playing”, Raheem Sterling tells me, regarding the wall outside his house in North West London. We’re sat down in a pitch-side dugout in the Etihad Campus on the hottest April afternoon for fifty years, both getting absolutely poached. Raheem’s just won the Premier League. He’s been poaching actual, real-life defenders all year. The sky is flat and blue, the grass is flat and green, and the buildings surrounding us all look like artist’s impressions of buildings. All shiny steel and glimmering glass, it looks like it's just been taken out of bubble wrap.
We’ve all got one, haven’t we, one of those walls. It might be the cage in the middle of the estate. Or the chopped up sideline on the pitch that your dad used to play on every Sunday morning. Or a corridor in the school that was perfect for a game of two-touch. There’s a place where you got good at football, or at least, where you got used to having a football somewhere near your body, even if it never really stuck. And for Raheem, it was that wall. Over and over again, he’d just kick the ball against it, make it stick, and kick it back.
“It was where I used to play with two of my mates,” he says. “We just used to be there messing about, shooting, free kicks, dribbling. And if they weren’t allowed out, then I’d do it on my own. I had a wall to basically test my touch, turn out, come back again, pass it against the wall, then turn out again.” The ball stuck to Raheem. He’s just won the Premier League.
You’ve seen Raheem Sterling play football. You’ve seen his technique switch, in the time it takes to rinse a fullback, from quintessential ballet-beautiful to a 110m hurdler hurtling over things trying to stop him in full flight. It’s a technique that started out on the streets of Jamaica, moved to that wall in North West London, and ended up on the hyper-green grass of the Etihad. It’s a technique that made him the best player on a pitch full of older lads with bigger muscles, points to prove, and legs to nutmeg. It’s a technique that’s about to take him to the World Cup as the second highest English goal scorer, and one of the most watchable players in the league. With a hug, a nudge, and advice to open your body with the ball as quickly as possible from his manager, Sterling’s rapidly gone from exciting and fun, to emphatic and ruthless. Pep recently described his understanding of the game as ‘global’. Not just skilful, but global. Not just quick, but global. Not just promising, but global. Imagine Pep Guardiola describing your understanding of anything as global.
After moving over from Jamaica when he was eight, Raheem grew up a goal kick’s distance from Wembley Stadium. He got picked up by QPR at the age of 11 after playing for various sides in the area and played in age groups way above his own until his six-figure transfer to Liverpool at the age of 15. He remembers the train there and thinking about winning Premier League titles. He wanted to play, and win, at football. If you look at his left arm, there’s a tattoo of a young boy with a football under his arm looking up at the arch. It’s him, isn’t it? He used to ride his bike around a little car park near the stadium. He used to go to school in its shadow. He used to look at it and dream. He says that one of his mates from where he grew up was round his house the other day, and they were talking about things from way back when. “He said I used to knock for him every day, and that he always knew I’d make it because every time he saw me I always had a ball under my arm. He said I’d be knocking at his house saying ‘let’s play’. He was at QPR back in the day too, and said he was thinking ‘what’s wrong with Raheem? All he ever wants to do is play football.’ He said to me he was looking to go meet girls and I’m here looking to knock his door and play football.’ Football was, and is, Raheem’s thing.
Growing up, like most of us, Raheem was a bit of trouble. And, like most of us, his mum was always there. You can never be upset with your mum for too long, even if she’s done your head in by telling you to stop playing outside and come in for the dinner that she’s just spent an hour preparing, before ironing your school uniform, packing your lunchbox, and putting you to bed for the night. Your mum is the best, and Raheem’s is too. She was happy that having football as an interest made him behave in school.
“She knew that I’d be behaving and cooperating with anything, if I had football, so she just let me do that. Anything else she could do to help me, she always did. Little stuff like before we went to school we’d go to a place and help her at her work in the mornings, little stuff like that. Looking back at it now, she’d make us look at her and make us think she was not doing well for herself, but looking at it now we always had everything we needed and she stayed so strong for us to help, and support, and make sure we had everything we need so anytime I look and think about her, I think ‘I’m so lucky to have someone like that for my mum’.” Raheem’s mum, like Wembley, is tattooed on him. Every defender he skins, his mum does too.
We’ve left the dugout, and are now walking the perimeter of one of the pitches that the Manchester City players train on. With the indoor training dome over there, and the floodlights up there, and the groundsmen always looking for a stray blade of grass everywhere, this is football training ground 3.0. Pep’s got the grass how he wants (23mm, exactly), the training how he wants, and ultimately, the results they all want. On other pitches there’s coaches with arms flailing and clipboards noting and young boys yelling “SWITCH IT”, and young girls yelling “TIME”, and I ask Raheem if he always knew he was going to be a professional footballer. Whether, when he was causing paid, grown men from across the country to come and watch him as an eleven-year-old, he knew he was going to get this far. Whether, when he was nicknamed Raheem Park Rangers for his ability to win games on his own, he knew he would be playing for England. And he didn’t, really, until he got to Liverpool.
“At that tender age, I don’t think there were any thoughts of ‘yeah I’ll play professional’, it was more just play it, enjoy it, go to the game, eat my pies, eat my sausage rolls, eat my bacon butties and then go and play again. That’s what I enjoyed doing.”
To be good at something, you need someone to tell you you’re good at it. You need someone to help you realise. If you were a little shit at school but had a bite-sized chunk of being nice or being clever or whatever, there was probably a teacher who saw it, hid the homework slips, and stopped the emails to your parents. And Raheem had two coaches, two brothers at QPR that were always there for him. “Steve and Joe Gallen. They were always, you know, they made me feel like I was special. They made me believe that I could do more than I thought I could do on the pitch. And that brought a lot out of me.”
A lot has changed since he was being pushed by Steve and Joe Gallen, though. Pep Guardiola has said that “sometimes he is unstoppable.” The stadium he watched get built and then cast its shadow down the road is a real place that he’s played in. It’s that madness of watching a dream come to reality. And, lots of people find that problematic.
It’s difficult to write about Raheem Sterling and not write about the things that other people have written about Raheem Sterling. Since he was a teenager, he has been relentlessly torn apart by the tabloid press. By the sort of newspapers that blame immigrants for the price of bread, and told you Brexit was a wonderful thing, and don’t think twice about the impact that their hate-filled narrative has on the lives of the people they stain with it.
Think about school. Think about school when a rumour was going around about you, and how it was the worst thing ever in the world, and it wasn’t even true, and everyone was whispering and pointing at you, and in the changing rooms they’d all say it over and over and over again, and on the playground, and at the back of the class, and on the way home and even the girls knew, and you’d never recover from it and your life was absolutely over, maybe even the universe too. Now think about that, but instead of the rumour going around your school, it is going around the whole world in ink and pixels and power. It is viral, it is merciless, it is absolutely encompassing. And tomorrow, you have to go and stand in the middle of a field surrounded 50,000 scowling men who know about the rumour. They’re all yelling at you. Just think about that for a second. Think about that. Now, I am also a member of the press. Would you talk to me? I probably wouldn’t talk to me.
But Raheem does, and I massively respect him for that. It’s absolutely sweltering, he’s just had a four-hour dose of Pep, and he’s got a couple of mates waiting at home for him. But he talks to me: and he is cheeky, and he is engaging, and he is telling me that he has always wanted “a role where I feel like I’m important to the team. The more responsibilities I get on the football field, the better I play. If it’s one of those where I’m just a number, then forget it, just leave me at home”. I ask him what he’d say to a young Raheem now, little Raheem against the wall, Raheem Park Rangers, annoyed at the dinner table because he’s had to come in.
“You need to enjoy it, live what’s put in front of you. Enjoy it and do the best you can. If one coach says you’re not good enough and you get released, that’s not the end of it. Play with your mates, just carry on playing. It’s gotta be something that you’re constantly doing. It’s got to be something that you love. Something that you enjoy doing. Something that you wanna keep on doing.”
The same as we did, Raheem gawped at Match of the Day on a Saturday night and tried to copy Ronaldo’s stepovers on a Sunday morning. He’d gawp at them like we gawp at him now. There’s a 12-year-old somewhere in North West London gawping at Match of the Day on a Saturday night, and trying to copy Raheem’s stepovers on a Sunday morning, falling shin first into the tarmac and screaming when the blood bubbles to the top of his patella. There’s loads of them. He wasn’t always sure he was going to be a professional footballer, but he does remember coming on for the England U-16s as a fourteen-year-old, setting up two goals straight away, and coming into school the next day feeling like the world’s most famous person. From that day, he thought “nah, I need to do this properly.”
And then, as we’re strolling towards the edge of the pitch, he smiles and tells me about the best goal he’s ever scored. He was 14 at QPR, and he tells me about it with his voice and with his face and with his hands like it’s a VHS on fast forward with the noise of the wheels going round and the squiggly lines going through the middle, and he’s playing for the QPR U-18s and one of his mates was in goal for the other side. And on he goes at 1–1, and he’s “on the halfway line, and I’ve touched it on the outside of my foot, and this is my first ever two touches for the 18s team, outside of my foot, controlled it in the air and zinged it right over the keeper’s head to win the game 2–1. And I’ll never forget that day in my life. That was probably my best moment ever. It was fake. It was, just, that couldn’t happen again. It was fake. I’d literally just come on, I was that skinny (he sticks his index finger out), the shirt was hanging off me, and I had to tuck it in but it was still bagging over, and I just remember shooting from so far out and, and… I was scoring for the 18s.” It’s great. It sounds like a dream.
He still dreams about football now. He dreams about games the next day, “about scoring and then waking up and thinking ‘shit, that wasn’t real.’ I’ve just bagged four the night before in my dream and then wake up and think ‘that wasn’t real’, I’ve gotta do that again tomorrow.” And, he feels like he essentially tries to emulate what he used to do on a football pitch now. But, more seriously. He’d still tell younger Raheem that he could have done it anyway. That he was cheeky and that nobody could faze him. “You couldn’t tell me anything, once I’d got on that football pitch. I was like ‘no-one is telling me anything’, I wouldn’t listen to anyone. I'd do what I want; I’d shoot from where I wanna shoot from—if I lost the ball, don’t go shouting at me to pass it. That wasn’t happening, forget it. I kinda miss that side of me. But younger Raheem would’ve probably told you that, yeah, he could’ve made it.”
I keep taking things back to the wall because I cannot stop thinking about the wall. Walls keep things in and keep things out and start wars and bring harmony and they need pulling down and putting up and taking out and filling in and blowing up and moving around, and I love the idea of Raheem Sterling scoring at the World Cup and going berserk and thinking about the wall, and I ask him what’s the difference, how different is it being on that pitch with all the cameras and the papers and the barking and everything, to the wall. Tell me how different it is. “Nothing changes. It’s just different stages, different stages of your life. It’s natural, it’s just what you see, what you’ve done since you were 10 until now. I’ve touched a football one bazillion-gazillion times; it’s just you’re in a stadium now with people watching. But nothing changes, your touch isn’t going to change; your dribble’s not gonna change. You’ve been in all those situations before. Every time you see a situation on the pitch, I’ve seen it before. Like, I see two defenders and one of my players, I give him the ball or I go take him on. It’s stuff you repeat, time after time, and it just comes natural to do it again.”
People who work as accountants don’t do sums on their days off, and most footballers actively avoid balls after training. But Raheem still plays football for fun. “In the summer mate, don’t worry about that, I’m playing every day, 5-a-side. All day in the summer during my holidays. All the time with my mates, in Jamaica.” It’s difficult to get away from it all, isn’t it. We regularly go and sink six pints before dinner after a testing day, and then wonder why we feel even worse the next. Footballers can’t do that though, especially ones who get crucified for eating cereal IN THE MORNING. And so, Raheem goes away. Since he was 17, he’s gone back to Jamaica every year. “It’s paradise. I can do what I want, drive where I want, and there’s no problems. Just pure love. Beaches, food, I’ll be eating like a madman. It’s the life when I go there. I love the culture, how peaceful it is, how chilled and laid back it is, that’s the sort of person I am, so chilled and laid back and that’s why I like going there.”
“When I’m there it’s just slow motion. Time doesn’t feel like it’s moving.”
Sometimes, it’s all slow motion. Sometimes, time doesn’t move. But most of the time, it does. It flies. And that, in a way, is the point of all this. When we, as people who enjoy watching football, are given the opportunity to watch someone like Raheem Sterling, someone who is excellent at football, loves the game, wants to score goals and win trophies, and has the ability to stop time on the pitch in the way that we can’t, well, we should support them really. Really, as another boy who really loves football, Raheem Sterling is living his, and your, dream.
THWACK. (The perfect ball is pinged in from Kevin de Bruyne and you control it with the outside of your left foot. The millions of fans surrounding you, watching on TV, listening on the radio, streaming online, watching on Snapchat, go berserk. What. A. Touch.) THWACK. (The ball is played through by David Silva. You roll your left foot over the ball, drop a shoulder and send Eric Bailly the other way.) THWACK. (The ball is lifted over to you from your England teammate Dele Alli, and you crack the ball with your Hypervenoms, the turf gives way, and it lashes into the top corner of the net past Thibaut Courtois.) THWACK. (The patchy ball rebounds off the wall and— “I’ve told you, dinner’s ready”, your mum shouts from the front door. It’s 6.45pm. You’ve been kicking a ball against that wall outside your house since 3.45pm.) THWACK. (“FINE, I’m—) THWACK. (“coming”).