England have Raheem Sterling to thank for their trip to Rome on Saturday for their Euro 2020 quarter-final against Ukraine, and they are now favourites to go on and reach a European Championship final for the first time.
The Manchester City star is already playing in his fourth major tournament but his talent, until now, had not been fully appreciated by the England support.
A precocious young player when England crashed out at the group stage of the 2014 World Cup, Sterling was one of the fall guys two years later as Roy Hodgson’s side exited Euro 2016 in embarrassing fashion against Iceland.
On social media, Sterling branded himself “The Hated One” during that tournament and he had to deal with negative stories in the press about his perceived lavish lifestyle and other issues.
He did not forget that treatment. In 2018, months after helping England reach the semi-finals of the World Cup despite failing to score, Sterling was racially abused while playing for Manchester City away to Chelsea.
Sterling took to Instagram to challenge media organisations for their portrayal of young black players, claiming it was fuelling “racism and aggressive behaviour”.
At just 26, he is a senior figure in a youthful England squad with 65 caps already to his name and represents a fearlessness and social conscience that have made Gareth Southgate’s side respected on and off the field.
In the face of booing from some of their own support, England’s players have continued to take the knee before each match in the tournament to highlight the fight against racial injustice.
Sterling is used to harnessing criticism as a motivation to prove his doubters wrong.
‘Keep asking questions’
Before Euro 2020 began there were calls for him to be dropped by Southgate after a disappointing end to his season at City, where he had been usurped by international teammate Phil Foden in the pecking order.
Foden was one of a multitude of exciting attacking players left watching on from the bench as Sterling opened the scoring against Germany in the last 16 on Tuesday for his third goal in four games at the tournament.
“Please keep asking the questions because if we cannot motivate him, everyone else will certainly be able to,” said Southgate with a wry smile after England’s first knockout victory over Germany at a major tournament since 1966.
“He is a fighter,” added Southgate. “He has got an incredible resilience and hunger. He has developed over the last couple of years this real hunger to score.
“His drive is fantastic. We know the journey he has been on with England and I am so happy for him to be able to deliver the performances he has.”
After scoring just twice in his first 45 England games, against minnows Estonia and Lithuania, Sterling now has 15 in his past 20 games for his country.
Born in Jamaica, Sterling moved to England as a five-year-old and grew up in the shadow of the new Wembley stadium as it was constructed.
See off Ukraine at the Stadio Olimpico and England will be back in Sterling’s backyard next week for a semi-final against Denmark or the Czech Republic in front of 60,000 fans as coronavirus restrictions are further relaxed.
Unlike Michael Owen at the 1998 World Cup, Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004 or even Harry Kane three years ago in Russia as he claimed the Golden Boot, Sterling has never been hailed as English football’s golden boy.
But his long road to success at a major tournament is symbolic of England’s 55-year wait to win one.
They will rarely get a better chance and if Sterling does lead them to a first-ever European Championship win come July 11, he will have forever silenced his critics.