Raheem Sterling has been a target of the tabloid press ever since he shot to fame as a teenager in 2012. But the latest controversy – the accusation that he is glamourising gun violence with a large new tattoo – has sparked a bitter row about racism, representation and the power of role-models in the sport.
Sterling has been widely criticised by anti-violence groups after he posted an image of his new body art – an M16 assault rifle. It triggered outrage in parts of the press, but so far, the 23-year-old’s only comment on the matter has been to say it has “deeper meaning”, and relates to when his father was shot dead when he was just two years old.
But many of his young fans see the tabloid interpretation differently.
“It’s to show you can turn bad things into a positive,” says Migel Ramirez, a 12-year-old football lover at the Archbishop Lafranc Academy in Croydon. “To follow your dreams, and let things motivate you to keep striving.”
Like many of his friends who participate in special coaching sessions organised by the charity, Football Beyond Borders, Ramirez is unequivocal in his support for the footballer. “It’s because his dad was shot dead in Jamaica, and that’s motivated him to only shoot with his right foot and never touch a gun,” he said.
The 12-year-old added: “He is a role model to me because he shows me how I can turn negative things into a positive. The media attention is just pointless, as long as he knows what he means. It’s his body, it’s his tattoo and as long as you know the right message behind it, it’s not a bad picture or a bad representation of England or the youth.”
Michael Afram is studying for his A Levels and hopes to go to Sussex University in September. The 19-year-old said Sterling remains an inspiration for him and many young black men across the UK.
“Personally, he is a role model to me, being a young black boy from south London, Raheem Sterling is someone I could have met on the street, I could have played football with, I could have gone to school with.
“Seeing him be successful, I don’t feel jealous, I’m happy for him. He plays for City, I hate City, but I love Raheem Sterling because he’s someone I could see and say ‘Alright’ and we’d have a conversation. He looks like that sort of guy.”
Lucy Cope, who founded Mothers Against Guns after her son Damian was shot dead outside a club in central London in July 2002, said when the tattoo was first revealed that it was “totally unacceptable”.
She told the Sun: “We demand he has the tattoo lasered off or covered up with a different tattoo.
“If he refuses he should be dropped from the England team. He’s supposed to be a role model but chooses to glamorise guns.”
But Rashad Jasir, 16, disagrees. “I think that it’s a good tattoo for him to remind himself of what happened to his father ... That’s the reality of what happened to him. We shouldn’t be trying to censor it,” he said.
“It’s very hypocritical,” he pointed out. “Because Arsenal, the whole name, the Gunners, everything about it is to do with guns, so they shouldn’t be talking about Raheem Sterling like that because it’s better that he does this instead of taking drugs or doing other bad stuff.”
Arsenal fan Leo Gianichini-Hastings, 13, a pupil at Elmgreen School in West Norwood, said the row had sparked a series of memes online about “Arsenal getting rid of their canons and their logo”.
He said Sterling’s tattoo was clearly “a device that shows the fans of England what he’s gone through”.
The Football Association has underlined its backing of Sterling amid the controversy. A spokesman said: “We all support Raheem Sterling and acknowledge the honest and heartfelt account he gave via Instagram last night.
“He and the rest of the squad are focused solely on preparing for the forthcoming World Cup.”
Gary Lineker is among other high profile sporting personalities who have stepped forward to defend Sterling. He tweeted: “He’s a terrific footballer with a brilliant work ethic. This persecution is disgusting.”