At the end of the first half of England’s dramatic round of sixteen win over Colombia on Tuesday night, as Raheem Sterling made his way to the tunnel, he was purposefully barged in the shoulder by Eduardo Urtasun, a member of the Colombian coaching team.
It was a sly move, typical of Colombia’s behaviour on the night, but it didn’t trouble Sterling. He just looked a bit bemused, and looked at him as he continued to jog back to the dressing room.
It was a calculated move by Colombia as they wanted to unsettle the Manchester City starlet because – even though up until then he had had a relatively quiet night – they recognised him as the England player they feared above all others.
Overall, Sterling would endure a frustrating night against the South Americans, for though he got in to good positions, and threatened, he had nothing to show for it.
When he went to shoot, he didn’t even make a good connection with the ball, his shots dribbled rather than soared and his crosses often didn’t reach their intended destination.
But, crucially, Sterling never gave up. He never sought to hide, he kept probing, kept making his runs which spilt the defence and in turn created space for his team-mates.
It is true we are yet to see the best of Sterling in Russia, but now is not the time to give up on him.
He’s just too good, and if England are patient he could still help them win the World Cup.
This is not a new and emerging player who has been found out on the world stage, this is a player who is on the brink of being world-class, who has just come off a season in which he thrilled the Premier League and played a major role in Manchester City’s record breaking title win.
Sterling has the pace and trickery to scare any defence. For all of Harry Kane’s goals, Sweden, just like the Colombians, will know that Sterling is the player most capable of troubling them in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final.
Since Gareth Southgate introduced his new system earlier this year, Sterling might not have provided the goals or assists he would have liked, but he has still been an important player with his movement, his ability to run at teams from deep and drag defenders out of position.
The most likely replacement for Sterling is Marcus Rashford, but he didn’t grasp his opportunity when handed a start against Belgium, missing England’s best chance. So far, he has appeared to work best as an impact substitute, with an injection of pace late in games to take advantage of tired legs.
On the final whistle, rather than rejoice at the victory, an English newspaper seized the moment to highlight the fact that Sterling had now gone 1,000 days without scoring for his country.
It is beginning to look like bullying now. It was certainly a strange decision to write about this on a night when England had so many heroes on the pitch and rather unsurprisingly it was later taken down online after it triggered a backlash of complaints on social media from fans.
England have always needed a scapegoat, and if the penalty shoot-out had gone the wrong way it appears as though Sterling was being pushed forward for the role.
Since the manufactured controversy about the tattoo of a gun he has on his leg on the eve of the tournament, there has been a pattern of seeking to find problems with Sterling.
Even in the wake of England’s two stirring wins over Tunisia and Panama, his own part in these games was diminished and he was seized upon by some as the weak link to be discarded.
Inside the England camp they are mystified by the criticism that continues to be directed at Sterling.
“At times, I have wondered why there has been such a focus on his position in the team and not others, but that’s the way it has been,” the England manager Gareth Southgate has said. “He’s tough and resilient. I have great belief in him, he has been a really important part of the team.”
Southgate knows his value to this England side and the stage is now set for Sterling to show his best, in what the nation hopes will be three more games in Russia.
The is an appealing narrative arc around Sterling at this World Cup; pre-tournament tabloid criticism was followed by a slow start. Now though, he can become a national hero over the next 10 days.