His international journey so far...
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Raheem Sterling was just two years-old when he lost his father in horrific circumstances.
It was a tragedy that he later admitted would shape his life, and as a result, his mother was determined to give her children a safer environment to live in and so moved to England to pave a path for her son and daughter to join her once she had found a home and finished her education.
"My mum made the decision to leave me and my sister in Jamaica and go to England so she could get her degree and give us a better life,” Raheem told The Players’ Tribune in 2018.
"I didn't fully understand what my mum was doing for us. I just knew that she was gone. My grandma was amazing, but everybody wants their mum at that age."
Finally, they were reunited in London when the children moved to England with Raheem now aged five.
They lived on the St Raphael’s estate in Neasden and Raheem attended Copland Primary School which was around 500 yards from Wembley Stadium.
Wembley was never far from the youngster’s mind – he could see the new stadium being built from his back garden - and though he was a more than useful 150m sprinter, it was football where he truly excelled and he helped his school win the Brent Cup during which he scored a hat-trick, made two more and won the man-of-the-match award.
His teacher and coach of the football team was Paul Lawrence.
“It's something I always wanted to do - wear the No.10 shirt for England.”
Speaking to The Independent in 2012, Lawrence said: “I remember one of the teachers asking me who the best footballer in Year 7 was.
“I said ‘Raheem Sterling'. He said to me, 'And who's the best player in Year 8?' I thought about it and said: 'Raheem Sterling'.
"I could have played him three years above his age group and he would have been exceptional."
"He is one of those players who has that will to win. He is brave and he works very hard. He understands the game. In general, he is very unselfish although you would expect someone with that ability to be greedy. A lot of the time I had to encourage him to be greedier with the ball."
Word of Raheem’s talent soon spread. Manchester City were one of several top clubs keeping close tabs on him. His youth team was called Alpha & Omega, based in nearby Kingsbury, and it wasn’t long before he was snapped up for QPR’s academy as an eight year-old.
He was playing for the Under-14s aged 11 and when he was 14, his coach was keen for him to play for the Under-18s, though eventually decided against it as he reasoned: “any player making way would surely have felt embarrassed at being replaced by a lad of 14”.
But his progress continued regardless and his first appearance in an England shirt came at the age of 14 as he played for England Under-16s against Northern Ireland, though he was still eligible to play for Jamaica, his birth nation.
At the time, he was asked about his international future and said, 'When it comes to that decision, that is when I will decide, but if Jamaica calls for me, why not?'
In February 2010, Liverpool paid £600,000 to take the 15 year-old to their Academy. It was a sizeable out lay for a player that age, but one that would prove a wide investment by the Merseysiders.
Plus, his mother was keen on a move north, with the threat of her son falling in with the wrong crowd on the increasingly violent streets around his neighbourhood.
His progress continued. After seven appearances for the England Under-16s, he moved up to the England Under-17s, making a positive impression as he scored twice along the way to a quarter-final exit against Germany.
It was a meteoric rise for the Kingston-turned-Londoner and he would make his Liverpool debut aged just 17 years and 107 days old against Wigan in March 2012 – the third youngest debutant in the Reds’ history.
Just six months later, he was selected for the senior England squad for a 2014 World Cup qualifier against Ukraine and though he wouldn’t play, the 17 year-old’s international future seemed certain and whether Jamaica called or not, it appeared his destiny lay with the Three Lions and his adopted home nation.
He played eight times for England Under-21s after that unused sub appearance for the seniors, but sandwiched in-between was his first full cap as he was named in the starting XI in a friendly away to Sweden.
He would have to wait another 14 months for his second cap against Denmark where he was voted man of the match inside the stadium he used to glance up at every day he went to school.
His progress at Liverpool, where he played 38 times and scored 10 goals during 2013/14 (and was only denied a Premier League winner’s medal by City’s late dramatic surge for the top) was impressive. But he had done more than enough to win a place in England’s 23-man squad for the 2014 World Cup.
It would be an educational trip for the 19 year-old who clashed with Antonio Valencia in a friendly against Ecuador on the build-up, resulting in a red card for both players. Sterling was selected for the opening World Cup match against Italy, and though it ended in a 2-1 loss, he was England’s best player on the night.
He scored his first England goal in March 2015 against Lithuania, with a high profile move to City following a couple of months later.
In his first interview for CityTV, he revealed his mum had said "you'll look good in blue".
Raheem was then selected for the Euro 2016 squad that would end with a morale-sapping loss to Iceland – and though he won the penalty that gave England the lead on four minutes, few of the Three Lions squad came away with any credit and some were unfairly blamed more than others.
But while he was scoring frequently for City, his international goals had dried up completely and for such a regular goal-scorer at club level, it was incredible that he would then go three years and one week without scoring again for England – a run of 27 matches.
He was still regularly selected for his country during that fallow period and was a key part of the Gareth Southgate side that reached the World Cup semi-final, only to lose to Croatia.
But whether or not there had been something of a mental block in front of goal for his country, his long wait for an England goal finally ended in a UEFA Nations League group game against Spain where, like London buses, he scored one and then another one followed shortly after in a 3-2 win over La Roja in the UEFA Nations League.
After that, the goals really began to flow.
Sterling scored his first hat-trick for England in 2019 as the Czech Republic were thrashed 5-0 at Wembley Stadium in a UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier. He later bagged a couple more against Bulgaria, making him City’s record goal-scorer for England with 11 having surpassed Eric Brook and Francis Lee’s previous record of 10.
While his England career had been rocky at times, few could have imagined the impact he would have at the delayed Euro 2020 where the stars began to align for the kid from Jamaica.
He scored the goal that beat Croatia 1-0 to get England’s tournament off to a flying start, but a 0-0 draw with Scotland quickly dampened the nation’s enthusiasm, though boss Southgate was quick to tell his players that the teams who do the best in major tournaments often start poorly.
“Gareth showed us some stats on teams that have gone on to do well in the tournament and where they were after the first two games,” revealed Sterling after the Scotland stalemate. “It just shows that it’s still early days and we’ve got a lot to build on and I truly do believe we can do that.
“The manager always shows us best possible scenarios, worst possible scenarios … when we were going into the World Cup, coming into the Euros. This was another scenario where we’ve got four points, it’s not the end of the world. He tried to make us look at all the positives.
“He’s just showing us in previous tournaments that it’s not every team that wins their first few games that goes on to win. Sometimes, teams that have drawn their first two games have gone on to win so we’ve just got to stay motivated, be happy and enjoy our football.”
And so it proved as Raheem again scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory as England beat the Czech Republic. The country was happy and enthusiastic again, perhaps scared to even dream of success.
It went on.
Raheem grabbed the first goal in the 2-0 win over Germany as the Three Lions ended so many years of disappointment against our greatest international rivals, sparking scenes in the Wembley stands that bordered fever pitch.
Yet, in that game there was a moment that was almost tortuous to watch.
Having just become a hero to millions for scoring the opening goal, Raheem received the ball and then passed it back into his own half, badly misjudging the position of his team-mate and literally sank to his knees, powerless as Thomas Muller raced clear… only to fire a low shot wide of the post with just the keeper to beat.
In that split second, Sterling must have seen his international career flash before his eyes as all the hard work on and off the pitch looked certain to be undone with one wayward pass, such is the fickle nature of football… but it wasn’t.
Muller missed and the headlines remained about all the good things Sterling had done in the game, and rightly so.
With the momentum of a nation behind him, he was at it again in the quarter-final, superbly setting up Harry Kane’s opening goal and having another excellent match.
It also had the statisticians churning out impressive stats for the City forward who had by then been involved in 22 goals in his past 21 games for England (15 goals, seven assists), and his six assists for Kane was more than any England player has assisted another in the 21st Century.
|And it kept getting better.
Sterling played like a man determined to fulfil his destiny in the Euro 2020 semi-final where he was, at times, simply sensational.
He would surely have scored from Bukayo Saka’s cross that was instead turned in by Danish defender Simon Kjaer that made it 1-1 and later, in extra time, it was his trickery and strength that won the penalty from which Kane eventually scored from to put England in a first major final for 54 years.
It’s been a breath-taking journey for Raheem who has been England’s player of the tournament so far and with 67 caps and 14 goals, he is also his nation’s most experienced player. It is worth reminding that at 26, he has already achieved so much in his career.
If he can help end all these years of hurt for England fans on Sunday, he will be a national hero.
A genuine Lion King, in fact. Here’s hoping…