CAPE TOWN – The rabid criticism which England’s Raheem Sterling has been subjected to is, to be brutally honest, completely unwarranted, and more than likely the actions of those who have deeper, far more sinister, motives.
What else are we to think? One thing’s certain, anybody who believes Sterling hasn’t played well at Russia 2018 doesn’t know football at all.
Sterling’s value is in what he offers to the team as a whole: his running into space, his speed which gets him behind obdurate, organised defences, his clever movement which creates openings for teammates and so much more.
Ask yourself: why does Pep Guardiola, the best coach in the world, rate Sterling so highly? Why is the winger ever-present in the Man City team? Granted, Sterling should be scoring more; yes, he does have a habit of squandering easy chances. But so what? Players miss goals all the time; the world’s best miss opportunities too.
Billy Anderson, my former coach at Santos, always told me: “I won’t be disappointed if you miss the goal, I would be more disappointed if you weren’t getting into scoring positions.” Sterling gets into those areas, he darts into those promising positions; how many other players do?
* There is something about emotion that’s capable of lifting the skin and stirring untapped reserves of strength. There is something about football passion that’s able to animate flagging resolve to find an extra gear of belief. It’s not something that can be touched - but, boy, to see it action, is something really, really special.
At the 2018 World Cup, we have been privileged to witness this extraordinary relationship between a team and its followers as superbly demonstrated by hosts Russia. They may have lost a penalty shoot-out to Croatia on Saturday, but it is only right we doff our caps to the hosts: they made the team, the coach and an entire nation proud.
In the build-up to the tournament, Russia were on a hiding to nothing; they had instilled little confidence and had been branded as one of the worst-ever Russia sides. Look now: they leave with their heads held high and, more importantly, with the love and respect of every Russian citizen.
But the Russian people played their part in rallying behind their team; there is a lot to be said for the 12th man in football. In the second half of the extra-time period, when Russia were 2-1 down, you thought that was it, it was all over. But, even watching on television, you could feel the noise, support and emotion of the supporters and, symbolically, the whole country, urging on the team.
And, with that emotional backing, they excavated the extra they needed to level and take the match to penalties. In the end, it wasn’t to be - but Russia’s team had won over a nation, and they had captivated a global audience with the courage and perseverance of their efforts. This is why we call football the “beautiful game”.
* Luka Modric, man. What a footballer. Croatia’s captain and midfield maestro was, yet again, the man for the occasion. His movement and passing are a delight, and his driving presence an inspiration to those around him. What’s more, even at 32, he just doesn’t know when to stop running: I swear, somewhere, in some secret crevice, he must have an extra lung stored which powers his Herculean displays.
* Dogged determination and disciplined defence are fantastic attributes for a football team - but, in the end, it can only take you so far. In a tournament such as the World Cup, a team has to have a bit more: some attacking quality, a measure of creativity and a bit of individual flair. Sweden had none of these traits, but managed to squeeze into the last eight. As expected, it was only a matter of time; their limitations were too obvious, losing to an England team who barely had to raise a sweat.