Raheem Sterling does not believe there is an agenda against him. He actually understands why there was such a fierce negative reaction to the emergence of an assault rifle tattooed on his right calf.
It split opinion: at one end of the extremes anti-gun campaigners calling for him to have it removed or withdraw from the World Cup squad, at the other a swelling mass defending the Manchester City winger and claiming a conspiracy against him.
The day after the story appeared on the front page of The Sun, Sterling posted an explanation, that it was a tribute to his dad who was gunned to death when the player was only two. But while some threw around accusations of racism against him, Sterling admitted he gets it; he understands why there were issues with a tattoo he has had since pre-season but which only emerged in the build-up to the World Cup.
“I can see, most definitely, where they’re coming from,” the 23-year-old said, “you can see a gun on someone’s leg, you are going to automatically think, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and from my point, I’ve had that since August/ September.”
Sterling did, however, question the timing of the photograph. “I know there’s been pictures of it before, so it’s just a case of why at this moment in time does it then get reported about,” Sterling said. “But, yeah, some things that started in pre-season and then, you know what, the season gets started, you kind of forget about it and then move on to football and it’s strictly football until the season finishes. It’s one of them. I don’t really take it personally.
“I don’t feel there’s an agenda, I wouldn’t personally say that. It’s just one of those things. It’s World Cup time and news is news. It’s put up. I don’t think it’s against me, I’m just focusing on my training sessions and doing well. The boys have seen I haven’t been affected by it or my mood. They know I’m fine. If they did see something wrong they would be the first to come to me.”
When controversial situations do arise, as they seem to around Sterling, he turns to his mum, Nadine, and his agent, with whom he is close. They will deal with it together, as a unit. Sterling has, after all, been through much worse than people complaining about some ink on his leg.
“Little things like what happened the other day, people expect me to be really affected by it,” he said. “I just find I’ve been through harder stuff in my life to be got down by that, so it’s the least of my worries. I’ve got a massive opportunity here, with a great bunch of players, to represent England at a World Cup, that’s my biggest focus now. And that tattoo [story] that goes by, it’s going to be spoken for one day, two days, football is the most important thing.”
Sterling has been handed the No 10 shirt by Gareth Southgate for the World Cup, and it prompted the revelation of another little-known tattoo he has kept hidden away – of the No 10. “It’s from my days at QPR. I know I shouldn’t mention it, but I’ve got a tattoo of it on my arm! It’s something I’ve always wanted to do: wear the No 10 for England.”