It was never Raheem Sterling’s plan to lead football’s fight against racism.
On December 9, as he deliberated over whether to send an Instagram post that thrust the issue back into the spotlight, he never thought it would catapult him to the forefront of a movement to erase racial prejudice from the game for good.
Having been abused by Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge the day before, Sterling’s objective — primarily as a black sportsman — was only to speak up because he believed he had been wronged.
His post that day forced football to re-evaluate. Calling out the media, this newspaper included, on how certain stories are reported dependent on the subject’s skin colour struck a chord.
Thank heavens he found the courage to tap out that social media post. Thank heavens he is, albeit reluctantly, leading the campaign against racism.
‘I didn’t mean to be a leader because I don’t think I am leader in this movement,’ said the Manchester City forward. ‘It’s something I’ve been seeing over a while and I thought it was a bit sad at times and I wanted to bring awareness to it.
‘I didn’t want to say anyone was racist. I just said something about the wording of stories. I didn’t want to say (Chelsea supporters) were actually being racist.
‘I just said it was what you (the media) were putting, and then people will judge me, and have it in for me if they’ve got bad thoughts.
‘But no, I don’t see myself being a leader in this. I have just been speaking up on a situation that is serious.’
Yet for someone who admits to stumbling into his role as modern football’s voice against racial prejudice, he is doing an excellent job. On Monday night in Podgorica, Sterling’s leadership qualities shone through.
He admits he did not hear the racial abuse from Montenegro fans during the game. He was only alerted to it by team-mate Danny Rose. The defender’s anguish at being targeted again appeared to cut deep. Pain was etched on Rose’s face as he made his way to the team bus after Monday’s Euro 2020 qualifier.
Infuriated to see Rose suffering, Sterling emerged as England’s unofficial spokesman in the aftermath of the despicable events in Montenegro.
On the pitch, his goal celebration provided a razor-sharp response to the idiots intent on abusing England’s black players.
Off the pitch, Sterling spoke incisively about the matter. He recalled a match in 2012, when he witnessed a tearful Rose being racially abused while playing for England Under 21s in Serbia.
The 24-year-old came off the bench that night, and when asked on Monday whether black players fear being targeted in eastern Europe, Sterling replied: ‘Yes, it’s in the back of your mind. A few years ago it happened to Danny in Serbia.
‘We knew it would be a similar atmosphere here. We weren’t thinking about racism. We were thinking it would be more hostile, swearing, being in your face.
‘It’s a real shame to be coming somewhere to be reminded of what skin colour you are, or what you resemble.
‘I know what colour I am. It’s just a shame that some people think it’s cool to make fun of you for it.’
On his goal celebration, he added: ‘It wasn’t an outpouring of frustration, it was just to let them know that you’re going to have to do better than that to stop us.’
Whether UEFA heed Sterling’s call to mete out heftier punishments which force supporters to think twice before unleashing such vitriol remains to be seen.
The governing body’s swift decision to charge Montenegro yesterday is a welcome start, but Sterling reiterated his belief that forcing teams to play games behind closed doors if supporters are found guilty would be the strongest deterrent.
‘If two people or two idiots do something like that, then it needs to be the whole stadium closed,’ he said.
‘Then the next time their team play a game, two or three idiots are going to think more, because they are going to make their team suffer when a game is played behind closed doors.
‘Even if it’s England fans, it should be the same everywhere.’