Raheem Sterling’s England journey may be ending but he delivered thrilling ride | Raheem Sterling

Ben White should probably consider himself lucky. Nineteenth-century punishments for desertion in the face of the enemy – which this definitely is, that’s not an issue – included summary execution, being branded with the letter D, a thousand lashes administered by the regimental drummer, which somehow makes it worse, and most terrifying of all, deportation to Australia.

Resisting the pull of the flag, the call to arms, duty to Albion. This has always been a profound strain of English anxiety. Most of the St Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V is taken up with shaming all the attendant peasant conscripts who would rather, on balance, run away than be a part of that wall of English dead someone was talking about back there. Even the war poets, contemplating being shredded into the mud of the Somme, just kind of shrugged sadly and got on with it.

In this context, some disappointed editorials and a slightly embarrassing here-comes-mum Arsenal support video seems quite a mild response to White’s refusal of an England call-up. But then, others have done this more covertly in the recent past. It’s a slow news week. We will quite quickly move on towards other battles, greater outrages. The centre will hold. Things will not fall apart.

Although, one thought did occur in the middle of this. Imagine the added depth and nuance to the response if it had been prime-years Raheem Sterling turning down the call. The same Sterling who still desperately wants to play, and whose omission from the current squad got a little bit lost in the brouhaha over White.

Not that this was unexpected or undeserved. Sterling hasn’t been in a squad since the Qatar World Cup. His form has been bitty, lost in the disaster-capitalism vortex at Chelsea. There are younger players in his position. It makes sense to leave him out.

But it is still a significant moment. For all the talk of open doors, this is basically it for the Euros, with just two June warm-up games to come. Barring an unlikely run of injuries, Sterling will now break his run of playing at five consecutive tournaments. If this really is the end, at the very least for that two-hander with Gareth Southgate, then the moment feels a little underloved and undermourned, a farewell that deserves a little more bunting, a few more flags put out.

There are three things worth saying about Sterling and England. The first, often overlooked, is how good he has been. Yes, it is possible to access very easily a wide number of Greatest Sterling Disaster Misses YouTube compilation clips set to pounding Dutch techno music. At times there has been a sense that his basic technique, the ability to successfully kick the ball, can’t keep pace with his genuinely A-list movement.

But the fact is Harry Kane-Sterling is up there with England’s greatest attacking partnerships, the cutting edge of successive tournament runs to a semi-final and a final shootout. Sterling was in the Uefa team of the last Euros. He had a scoring run of 15 in 20 games across his mid-Gareth pomp. As recently as November 2021 he popped up on the Ballon d’Or shortlist and moved to Chelsea openly talking about winning it, which was reported straight at the time because it didn’t actually sound weird.

His most significant quality through all this has been a warrior level of mental toughness. There is probably some kind of irony here. For all the talk of distractingly bejewelled sinks, of flash and weakness, a classic slur against black footballers in England, Sterling has turned out to be as tough as old boots.

This is his key quality, a thrilling degree of mental toughness. It’s there even in his trajectory with England. Three of Sterling’s first six tournament games were disastrous defeats, taking in a World Cup collapse and Iceland in Nice, zombie-football, Hodgson apocalypse, the end of days.

The calamitous defeat by Iceland at Euro 2016 came early in Raheem Sterling’s international career. Photograph: Michael Dalder/Reuters

Yet within two years Sterling had become a key part of the iconography of the Southgate good times, both a beneficiary and an architect of that clean, clear space, striding through the sunlight of Samara in that familiar style, the run-waddle of a notably brave and endearing cartoon duckling, playing right, left, attacking midfield, No 10, false 9, and always just keeping on coming, never cowed.

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It has been a necessary quality. This is a player who was cast as “the most hated man in football” twice before the age of 23, first for leaving Liverpool in a way people didn’t like, second as the scapegoat in a really terrible England team.

This just seemed to be the way. On the night of the Iceland game Ryan Giggs, employed as a TV pundit, spoke about “a washbag culture” among England’s players, a notion of spinelessness and moral bankruptcy, a crisis of manhood if you will, based, also, around owning a washbag.

Naturally, at least one newspaper mocked up a picture of Sterling next to a giant washbag the next day.

Of course it was also about race. The Sun was quick to deny that words used in a series of articles around Euro 2016 might have been loaded with harmful dog-whistle stereotypes (“flash … blinged-up … bragging … crystal-encrusted … the lights and shit … footie idiot … the big-daddy Rangey … Obscene Raheem … flaunting his diamond-encrusted sink”).

It wasn’t alone. Even the allegedly progressive website Vice published a series of artifices sneering at his possession of a piano (imagine!), his brazenness in owning an actual house, paid for with money from his job.

Sterling’s success in flushing this out into the light was startling and righteous, a moment of genuinely positive engagement. Nobody with his profile had really talked about this before in the same way around football, so directly and with such force. And no, Britain does not feel like a happier, more tolerant, more settled place eight years on. Nothing has been solved. It will take a little more than protest.

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