Gareth Southgate has backed Raheem Sterling to one day replace Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s best footballer.
Sterling underlined his outstanding talent with a breathtaking first-half display for England in Tuesday’s 5-3 win over Kosovo, scoring his eighth international goal in as many matches and assisting three others.
The 24-year-old’s performance was the latest in a number of match-winning contributions for club and country over the past three years.
With Messi, 32, and Ronaldo, 34, entering the twilight of their careers, the race to replace them as the world’s No1 player is hotting up.
England boss Southgate believes Sterling has the capacity to do it. He said: “He’ll give himself every chance. There are obviously some outstanding players around, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Messi and Ronaldo. But he’s got the drive, he’s got the professionalism, he’s got the ability. He’s physically and mentally strong for such a small-statured lad.”
Sterling’s emergence as arguably England’s most influential player illustrates a remarkable turnaround. The forward was 21 when he infamously branded himself ‘the hated one’ during Euro 2016 as England crashed out to Iceland. Three years on and Sterling (below) is now revered by England fans.
Southgate said: “For me it’s lovely to see the shift in the public opinion of him. We have always picked him. There have been times where he has not played well and we have taken him off, but he has always been integral to the way we want to play.
“He’s a player who has always given his all. It’s lovely to see a young man establishing himself at the real top table in the game. We feel very lucky to have him as one of ours.”
Southgate recognises Sterling’s transformation is not complete and, privately, the player feels the same. He yearns for the consistency Messi and Ronaldo have maintained.
Southgate added: “It’s hard to assess how far he can go. Winning trophies is important. No matter how much we think of the outstanding players, they have to have made a difference in the biggest of games.
“But he’s got the ability to influence those games. He’s going to have those opportunities with his club. We’ve got to make sure he gets those opportunities with England.”