Here’s our daily exercise in keeping competing thoughts in our heads at the same time. European soccer has become player ruled. Particularly in the post-Chelsea, post-Manchester City era, there’s more money sloshing around in the top league than many entire nations. There’s no loyalty to club and not much more to country. Sports agents sit like ticks on the ass of a dog, leeching off their cuts and reveling in their status as bad guys of the sport. And clubs still aren’t the good guys.
Raheem Sterling is maybe the brightest talent in English soccer, a tricky-dribbling, deft-passing, flashy, slightly raw 20-year-old with precisely the flair that the English game desperately needs. He’s not the finished product yet, but it is by no means the normal pundit hyperbole to call him one of the best young players in Europe. He has the making of a real superstar, another Eden Hazard someday, at that tier just below the very tip-top of soccer’s greatness hierarchy. He also plays for Liverpool and wants out.
Sterling wants money. Or trophies. Probably both, and Manchester City seem hell-bent on giving them to him, if media reports are to believed. It’s a pretty standard story, with two exceptions. The first is, of course, his age. He’s young and he’s got his sights set higher than most players his age. He wants to win now. Or get paid now. Whatever. It doesn’t matter, the point is he wants them now. Liverpool can’t give him both.
The second and far more troubling factor is how his pushing for a move has caused the English punditry class, especially those with a connection to the Liverpool front office, to lose their goddamned minds. For months now, a parade of ex-Liverpool players and newspaper writers have excoriated Sterling. Openly, publicly, in as ugly a fashion as they can without crossing the line into something too much even for the ravenous English appetite for tabloids and shit talk.
Leading the charge has been former Liverpool defender and current Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher. He’s been riding Sterling as far back as October of 2014, well before this current transfer saga kicked off in earnest. As things have snowballed, Carragher’s been right at the forefront, red-faced and wound up on TV, visibly seething about this kid taking on his club. Liverpool. Hallowed, you’ll never walk alone Liverpool.
So Sterling’s agent called Carragher a knob.
Now everyone’s gone haywire. An agent called Jamie Carragher a knob. This can’t stand. This is too much. Agents are vile. Sterling is a punk kid with too much self-regard. And he’s not even that good! Where do this asshole player and his agent get off?
There weren’t, of course, any words from the press when Carragher was balling his fists up talking about how Sterling’s behavior made him feel sick. Nobody blinked when Phil Thompson dumped on Sterling for having “too high an opinion of himself”. On and on, an entire media engine, with a few exceptions, piled on Sterling, saying he was too young to be anything but grateful. Not too young to get jumped on by the media. Not too young to bear the anger of Liverpool fans as they were whipped into a frenzy over the coverage. Too young for the money, but definitely old enough for the much-deserved hate.
Of course, there wasn’t this hand-wringing when Sterling was pried from QPR as a teenager. Liverpool’s insistence on doing things the “right way” wasn’t in question when they raided Southampton last summer. Nobody warned Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that they would languish on the bench when Arsenal came in for them as youngsters. Sterling wouldn’t be a surefire starter if he went to City or Arsenal or PSG. Ask anyone. They’ll tell you. Only Liverpool can provide the combination of guaranteed playing time and amazing coaching a young talent like Sterling needs.
There’s always been a whiff of disdain when the media talks about Sterling. They were all too happy to bite on rumors that he had at least three children by numerous women. Photos of him partaking in low-grade, legal recreational drugs became evidence of his sloth. When Brendan Rodgers gave him a midseason break in Jamaica, it wasn’t a way of keeping the young star from burning out, as Rodgers insisted, but further proof that he was lazy and pampered.
I can’t comment on systemic British racism, but I do know my lying eyes. When they’re making t-shirts for Luis Suárez to let him know that he’s supported after getting suspended for using a racial slur while doing everything short of calling Sterling uppity for years, well, one starts to wonder about some of the most visibly apparent differences between the two men. Hell, Suárez was halfway out the door to Arsenal and they begged him to come back. Sterling’s not gone anywhere yet, with only the buzz of £40 million City bids around him, and Anfield is booing him while he’s not even on the pitch.
And what about Liverpool, anyway? Any of this could be excused if there were any apparent plan. Sterling actually doesn’t have much leverage, with two years on his contract. Liverpool don’t have to sell. So, given that, why would they poison the well so much that it makes staying untenable for everyone involved?
For the longest time, I’ve thought that Liverpool’s bluster, the sheer balls to strut about like you’re the best club in the world while you’re usually closer to 10th than 1st, was just that: bluster. It was, I thought, a way of keeping fans who remember the old days in line. A comfort against a world with new, big-money predators. A reliance on a creaking history in order to reassure everyone who buys tickets that the club still mattered to everyone in the world, that it was still the national treasure and cultural export it once was.
But this is looking increasingly untrue. The only explanation that makes any sense is that the Liverpool brass believe their own line every bit as much as their fans do. The 2014 challenge wasn’t a blip brought on by arguably the best pure striker in the world having the best season of his life. It was a birthright, a return to form. Liverpool are the Knicks. They’re the 1980s UCLA Bruins basketball team. Their best is fading in the rearview mirror, increasingly remembered only by middle-aged men crammed in pubs and sports bars, whispering names like Dalglish and Souness in reverent tones, as if those greats of yore could be conjured by quiet invocations and clenched eyes. And when something resembling the Liverpool of legend reemerges from the mist, as in 2014, the frenzy begins anew.
It’s not about keeping Sterling and it’s certainly not about making him happy. It’s about being right. It’s about displaying that you’re right, that the Liverpool way is alive and well. Liverpool FC, the English institution. You can, if you squint your eyes as you read the coverage of Sterling’s contract, see how much of it involves the club sub-communicating the correct poses. Liverpool, the Navy, and the Queen; let nothing sink them.
So it was that on the last day of the season we were treated to the sight of fans haranguing Sterling as Liverpool crashed to an embarrassing 6-1 loss to Stoke, their heaviest loss in 52 years. Sterling, who was on the bench and played no part in the sorry display, was booed mercilessly by the traveling Liverpool fans. He was called a greedy bastard. Then he was booed by England fans during the England-Ireland friendly. Definitely better to be right than good, Liverpool fans.
Really, why would Sterling want to be a part of that? It’s a bipolar organization, one where you’re bound to a monolithic obeisance to past glory while everyone is also really angry that they’re more likely to be rivals to Stoke than to Chelsea. Moreover, why would any young player want to be a part of that, especially an English one? Why subject yourself to the abuse which comes with being part of a Liverpool team?
Sterling’s going to leave. Maybe this summer, certainly by next. He has a touch more swagger than his accomplishments merit. His agent is almost certainly a villain, because sports agents are pretty much always villains. But I also hope he makes a billion dollars and puts a hat trick past a hapless Simon Mignolet while Jordan Henderson is pushing for an inevitable move away of his own. It’s the least Jamie Carragher and Phil Thompson and the like—bullies and loudmouths, all—deserve.
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