Raheem Sterling has his supporters. In part it’s owed to the general lack of hope for England going into this World Cup, while the rest is made up from the continued shameless hyping of young players.
What isn’t being taken into account as we near England’s first game against Italy is tactics – and if there are a few mutterings of such a concept, they’re being kept quiet and well away from the majority opinion.
Raheem Sterling deserves to be at this World Cup following the excellent half-season he had with Liverpool. He’s earned the right to be part of Roy Hodgson’s squad, but let’s not mistake a merited place for entitlement into a starting XI.
The 19-year-old has been picked for his form with Liverpool; we don’t know what he’ll be like at a major international tournament – the biggest in fact, due to its setting. What would be a positive is Sterling going out and justifying his place in the team, justifying all those who are demanding his inclusion in the XI to face Italy.
Sterling is an exciting player. Forget what he can do against opposition players, he’s the type of player who lifts supporters. He’s quickly become a symbol of hope for a nation who don’t really have much to lean on in the build up to this tournament. Wayne Rooney? Most are now disillusioned and unconvinced.
But what if Sterling comes up short? What if he falls flat and becomes yet another built-up England player to disappoint on the big stage? I’m not hoping for any of that, which is why I don’t see the point in all the commotion. Isn’t it enough that Hodgson has picked Sterling in a youth-heavy squad? If he makes it onto the pitch in Manaus, either starting or as a sub, it will be because the coach has been suitably convinced himself that Sterling should be involved.
So let’s do away with the hype and exclamations of youthful exuberance. Let Sterling’s performances do the talking. It’s easy to forget that this is a player who doesn’t have a full season of high-level consistency under his belt. He did well this past season from Christmas up until the end of the campaign, and also for brief spells under Kenny Dalglish. There’s been nothing sustained over a period of 38 games yet.
For the player himself, this is an unbelievable opportunity to prove that he belongs, that he wasn’t just riding the feel-good wave at Anfield last season. I don’t doubt his talents. I am, however, sceptical and a little wary of the responsibility being forced Sterling’s way. Youth and naivety will do a lot for the nerves, but the clamour for his inclusion won’t be lost on the 19-year-old, and with it the responsibility becomes real and the weight that much heavier. This tournament will be good preparation for the next for the younger members of the squad, but is it wise to lay so much at the feet of young players?
For now, Sterling is an option for England and Hodgson. He’s an option because his skills and talent haven’t been refined to the point where he’s an established star. He’s an option, unlike the big names in the Spain team, or the way Brazil are leaning on Neymar for inspiration. Sterling is an option because England don’t have a defined way of playing; despite his reputation for the conservative, we’re not entirely sure how Hodgson will set his team up in Brazil. England aren’t a team who can dominate others, so shifting tactical focus game by game makes sense.
Above all, this is an exciting opportunity for a youngster to play at a World Cup in Brazil – and I think many have forgotten that. Fans should ride alongside Sterling in the event he enjoys a positive tournament, but the key should be in letting him find his feet in an unfamiliar international environment.