The Raheem Sterling vendetta has undermined the grip of the tabloids on public opinion
Raheem Sterling is, apparently, a decent young man. He’s a very good footballer, too, and certainly one with the potential to be the catalyst for any positive progress made by England at the 2018 FIFA World Cup later this month.
Neither of those characteristics matter to a large section of the British press. Tabloid and Telegraph, news hacks and sport, Sterling has become a target.
That’s not new but it has escalated in the past seven days. It’s no surprise. England are about to play in a World Cup. They’re just following the playbook.
The reasons behind the mainstream media’s vendetta against Sterling are important but they’ve been debated elsewhere. The detailed dossier of ludicrous Sterling stories has been listed and continues to grow.
Sterling deserves better, not because he’s some kind of angel but because he’s a human being. England deserve better, too.
And the journalists involved — there’s little point in identifying them by name because they’re a pack, after all — deserve to be faced down by the supporters of England who are sick of seeing their team clotheslined every four Junes by publications that would shamelessly parasitise any future success.
But maybe there’s a positive outcome this time. Their vitriol has spread only as far as the banks of the cesspit.
As the tweets promoting this spurious crap have rolled through our timelines this week the replies have been surprisingly enlightened, as if they weren’t below the fold of the internet at all.
The journalists who’ve put their names to the various component parts of this sustained attack on Sterling have been more or less unanimously taken to task, the exceptions being disproportionately and unsurprisingly fellow national journalists.
But that’s Twitter. Before the bots and wrong ‘uns took over it was notorious as a left-wing echo chamber, an unreliable representation of the wider public opinion.
Sterling’s first touch at Wembley against Nigeria, then, was the acid test.
Do match-going England supporters subscribe to the belief that Sterling’s tattoo warrants expulsion or an apology? Do they think his late arrival for World Cup duty was just the latest in a string of misdemeanors?
Do they, like the Fleet Street pack, see Sterling as uniquely worthy of continuous negative attention?
Of course they fucking don’t.
Because the tabloids don’t call the shots anymore. News correspondents encroaching into football are given short shrift and their football colleagues face public resistance when they join the pile-on.
Supporters have always been minded to bite back but they’re learning more and more that when the issue at hand is serious, or unjust, or merely counter-productive, their collective response is self-defined.
The Sun and the Daily Mail and The Telegraph — whose contribution in this case has been sinister precisely because of its less shrill tone — don’t speak for football supporters.
The former sowed the seeds of adversity when it slandered Liverpool supporters in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. No football supporter should ever buy, read or engage with that newspaper.
The Mail is similarly despised, and, predictably, placed itself on the wrong side of history by joining in with the shit-slinging over a tattoo.
The pessimists among Sterling’s defenders might have assumed that the large circulations of these newspapers would give them the audience needed to whip up the negativity, to turn the public against Sterling, to derail the England camp when it needed it the least.
But it didn’t happen. Supporters said no. They stood up and told the tabloid ghouls that they support Sterling.
With the help of alternative media voices they questioned the intentions of the offending journalists and pointed out the lack of substance in both their stories and their character.
Football supporters don’t tolerate just anything. If Sterling or any other England player does transgress in the next couple of weeks they’ll know about it in no uncertain terms.
On this occasion it’s the press who’ve stepped over the line and it’s the press who are being criticised by the football community.
That’s how public opinion has judged this ugly saga and it’s been encouraging to watch. Only the supporters will decide when a player becomes the bad guy and the tabloids’ attempts to create one have stirred up only football’s middle finger.
The community has a voice. More often than not that seems to be problematic. But every now and again football circles the wagons in defence of one of its own. That is the beautiful game.