“Sterling behaved a bit like a spoilt child.” This was a line given to The Athletic about reports on Monday regarding a canteen bust up between England players Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez. The fight reportedly lasted no longer than 15 seconds, but the media backlash to it is still ongoing… which is also how literally every report on the story has begun by the way.
It is not lost on me that, by commenting on the story and using it as an opportunity to sound clever by giving it a ridiculously ironic title comparing it to a children’s book, I am becoming part of this backlash. Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez are both grown men and the subject matter of their dispute is not the contents of a children’s book.
However, the overzealous nature of the media within football, which is fuelled by a public demand to know as much as possible, has led to a climate in which every aspect of a footballer’s life now must be scrutinised – scrutinised to a point where stories like this become children’s books with a goody and a baddy.
Of course, it didn’t used to be like this. If two teammates didn’t get along in the 1960s, the public would almost certainly have had no idea because nobody really cared. Even as recently as the late 1990s in-squad quarrels gained very little media attention.
Michael Cox’s book “The Mixer” tells of how, early on in his Arsenal career, Arsène Wenger had to quell a dispute between Marc Overmars and a young Nicolas Anelka. Anelka felt that Overmars wasn’t passing to him enough and instead would only look to find fellow dutchman Dennis Bergkamp. He was grumpy enough about the situation to tell the French press that he was going to speak to the manager about it.
The main problem was that neither Anelka, who spoke little English at the time, nor Overmars, who could not understand French, were able to properly communicate their problems with each other. Wenger, who speaks five languages, dealt with the situation by holding a meeting between the two where he would act as a false interpreter.
He told Overmars that Anelka had no issue in English and then told Anelka that Overmars would pass more in French. He lied, but it worked, and the situation was solved with almost no media attention whatsoever, despite Anelka actually going to the media.
However, nowadays there is no escape from it. The Sterling vs Gomez story had actually began rumbling the day before the fight even took place, during the final moments of Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat of title rivals Manchester City. Sterling and Gomez had been involved in a late on-field tussle in the closing stages. Afterwards, they reportedly kissed and made up off-field and that was that, right? Wrong.
Sterling, who has usually struggled in games against his old club, was probably City’s best player. Throughout the game, he was subjected to fierce abuse from the home fans, as he always is when he returns to Merseyside. The most resonant chant was “one greedy bastard”, referring to his £49m transfer from Liverpool to City in 2015.
On top of this, he was also on the end of a particularly dangerous push from Trent Alexander-Arnold, whom he had tormented down Liverpool’s right-hand side for most of the afternoon, that saw him nearly fall head over heels into an advertising board next to the pitch. (Gomez actually came on to help sure up Liverpool’s right-hand side and deal with Sterling.)
A similar push also happened between Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson and City’s Kyle Walker. City manager Pep Guardiola later lamented the loss to poor refereeing decisions, and maybe both Liverpool full backs were lucky to get away with these incidents, but in truth Jürgen Klopp’s team were the better side.
That obviously did no good for Sterling, who put in a good display and was rewarded with a few kicks followed by some derisive memes online that evening after stills of the on-field fracas between himself and Gomez showed him in a rather diminutive light. I am by no means defending the way Sterling behaved the next day to Gomez, who is reported to have been very upset by the affair. I’m merely expressing that his frustration is at least a bit understandable.
Given the level of media scrutiny that footballers now live under, I suppose it is also understandable how sensationalised the whole ordeal became. A training ground bust up! An in-squad scrap! Phrases like this were in the news for the rest of the week leading up to England’s game against Montenegro on Thursday.
Pictures of a scratch on Gomez’s face surfaced and were circulated. “Fair enough,” I thought. It’s an interesting story – definitely so if people want to know more about it. Furthermore, it also served as a great continuation to the Liverpool vs City narrative.
However, this is where a real problem resides. Since the story was about two players who play for the two best clubs in the country right now, support for either became aligned with the support an individual had for each club. To City fans Gomez was the provoker and for Liverpool fans it was their favourite limbless reptile Raheem.
No matter what the media said now, their opinions wouldn’t change, but the media was still saying lots of things anyway, almost to the point where the incident overshadowed the fact that England were about to play their 1000th ever game.
Whilst writing for The Independent, Jonathan Liew noticed a similar sort of reaction after Pep Guardiola’s comments over a Bernardo Silva tweet that compared an old picture of teammate Benjamin Mendy with a stereotypically racist image of a black child with round bulging eyes, fat red lips and no clothes.
Liew said that much of the reaction was “grounded not in genuine distaste but in the gleeful, vengeful, self-interested outrage of the footballing partisan”. The Bernardo story became not about the real issue at hand, racism in football, but about how stupid it made Manchester City look.
In a similar way, the media’s constant barrage of updates on the story about Sterling and Gomez has meant that they are no longer the story. It has simply become about who you like more. Sterling was not in the squad against Montenegro, left out by Gareth Southgate who will have correctly felt that this was the best course of action for everyone involved. However, this also angered fans, who felt that Southgate was foregoing fielding probably England’s best player in order to compensate for the feelings of a young defender who wasn’t even likely to start.
Therefore, Sterling, who is undeniably one of England’s best players and is now often portrayed in a sympathetic light by the press due to much unfair treatment of him from them in the past, was always going to win this battle. Many saw Gomez as the reason Sterling wasn’t playing.
He plays for Liverpool, a team some England fans despise due to the fact that a subset of their supporters considers themselves to be “Scouse not English”. He is also, as mentioned, not a regular starter yet.
So, in the 70th minute, when Gomez was substituted on for Mason Mount, he was met by more than a fair few boos from England fans. This was the response to a 22-year-old, who had done no more wrong than be scratched in the face, continuing to carry out a lifelong dream of playing for England. Sterling himself condemned the booing of Gomez in a post on social media.
The media’s response has been to call the perpetrators “Neanderthals” and “utterly stupid”, but maybe there would not have been any booing at all had there not been such a frenzy about the story in the first place.
In mid-October, Tammy Abraham declared that England players would walk off the pitch should they be subjected to racial abuse during an upcoming game in Bulgaria. It was the only thing in the news that week. The racist abuse from Bulgarian fans that followed during the game was vile and heinous, and the people who carried it out should have no place in any society.
However, with England 2-0 up inside 20 minutes and it looking like it was only going to get worse for Bulgaria, the knowledge that the opposition players would walk off should they be on the end of hypothetical racist chants must have acted as a factor into the Bulgarians’ instigation of actual racist chants.
It wasn’t Abraham’s fault for saying what he said, nor was it the fault of the journalist who asked him the question. Abraham was right: walking off the field was the appropriate response to such vile abuse. As far as the journalist is concerned, it was definitely more likely for racial abuse to occur in Bulgaria than it was in other recent away fixtures involving England. So, it was a fair question to ask.
However, the storm that was created by the press as the direct result of Abraham’s answer seemed to help in coaxing the inner monster out of the home fans in Sofia that night, which contributed to create the ultimately revolting environment that the England players were then forced to play in. Joe Gomez, who is black and was sat on the bench in Sofia in October, will have been hurt that night. His next England outing has left him hurt further still – this time by his own supporters, and both times can be attributed in part to the media.
by Xavier Bird