One of the biggest games of the English football season was yesterday overshadowed by the ongoing fight against racism inside the game.
Tottenham’s Danny Rose revealed last week that he is looking forward to retiring from professional football because it will mean a stop to the racist abuse he receives.
The comments came just days after he was among black England players who were subjected to vile taunts during the Euro 2020 qualifier in Montenegro last month.
That night Raheem Sterling scored and cupped his ears to the crowd in response. He later tweeted a picture of his gesture with the quote: “Best way to silence the haters (and yeah I mean racists).”
Yesterday, Son Heung-Min, Tottenham’s South Korea international, revealed he has been subject to racist abuse since arriving in England from Bayer Leverkusen in 2015.
All three men will play at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium tonight as Spurs host Manchester City in the first leg of their mouth-watering Champions League quarter-final clash but most of the talk yesterday was not about football but about racism.
Indeed Manchester City’s press officer felt the need to intervene and request ‘football questions’ after Sterling had opened up about racism for more than six minutes.
But despite his post-match Tweet making him a beacon for the fight against racism in football, Sterling does not see himself as a figurehead of anything.
“I don’t really think I can make a difference,” he said. “This has been happening since before I was born, since before my parents were born.
“I can only speak up about events that happen to me and the people around me. I’m not trying to be someone that tries to lead or something like that. I can just raise awareness and it’s for people in the higher places to do their job — bring education to light.”
Sterling and Rose have become friends as a result of their time together on international duty and one may assume the left-back’s comments would have resonated with the Manchester City forward.
Sterling added: “I don’t want to go into too much detail but I’ve heard stories of his past in youth teams and stuff like that.
“It’s something he’s come across quite a number of times and it’s probably getting too much for him.
“I haven’t had a conversation with him since he said that but we spoke after what happened with the national team. We both spoke and gave our points as a team as well.
“I’m a person who, when I feel something’s not quite right, I want to speak about it and people to see it from my perspective and I think that’s the best way forward.
If more players do speak up then the better it will be. But, again, I’m not trying to be a leader of that.
Sterling insists he has never been affected by the racism he has encountered while playing and would not consider walking off the pitch as a result of abuse from the crowd.
“I personally wouldn’t agree with it,” he said. “To try and go out and win the game when it’s going on will hurt them even more. They’re only trying to get you down. If you do walk off the pitch as a group, that kind of makes them win.
“When I was growing up, my Mum told me I’m a wonderful black child. I know this. It’s nothing new to me.
“I know I’m black and I’m happy with it, I’m proud. I’m confident with my body. At the same time it’s not right. Some people can’t take it. But growing up my mum always told me to love myself and who I am.”
Sterling, still only 24, is currently enjoying the finest form of his career to date and is one of the favourites to be named the player of the season.
And his manager Pep Guardiola is certain the racism issue will not knock the youngster out of his stride.
“I think he can handle it, he has handled it well,” Guardiola said.
“What they do or what Danny Rose has done, that is well done. We have to fight every day to eradicate it.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous to still talk about it but that is what is happening. The only thing we can do is fight to eradicate it for a better society.”
Sterling is likely to be rejoined by fit-again Sergio Aguero in attack after the Argentinean’s recovery from a muscle injury.
The manager added: “Aguero feels better. He trained with the team and feels better.
“Will we attack as normal? Yes, definitely. Nothing changes.”