LONDON - England manager Gareth Southgate insists Raheem Sterling does not deserve to be hounded after the controversy caused by his tattoo of an M16 assault rifle.
Manchester City striker Sterling, 23, posted a picture of himself training with his England team-mates with a tattoo of the rifle on the winger's right calf clearly visible.
Sterling said the unfinished tattoo served as a reminder of his vow never to touch guns after his father was shot to death in his native Jamaica when he was just two years old.
Southgate was asked whether he had spoken to Sterling about the need for England stars to be beyond reproach given the potential for influencing impressionable children who idolise them. But Southgate fully backed Sterling and expects his player to cope with the row.
"He knows he's got our support, he understands how some people have perceived the tattoo. But in my view a tattoo is like any work of art," Southgate told reporters at England's hotel on Friday.
"It's a very individual meaning, the intent is all with the individual and the person. I suppose when you're a high profile young man or woman and you're in the public eye there will be intrusion into your life - that's the world we're in but he's very focused on playing and working with us."
Speaking ahead of England's World Cup warm-up against Nigeria at Wembley on Saturday, Southgate added: "What has been clear by his own statement and his own experiences is that he is not someone who supports or wants to promote guns in the way that was perceived at first.
"It's something he's had to get on with this week but he's a very strong individual and he's looking forward to the game."
After a superb season with Premier League champions City, Sterling is likely to be one of Southgate's key men in Russia, where England face Tunisia, Panama and Belgium in Group G.
And the England boss offered a strong defence of Sterling's character amid calls from some quarters for him to be disciplined over the tattoo.
Describing Sterling as a great inspiration to youngsters from all backgrounds, Southgate said: "I think the personal story of a lot of our players is quite remarkable.
"People often highlight the issues, the faults, of all of the squad, but for so many of them it's incredible they've got to the point they have.
"They are a great example to young kids of what you can achieve with your life if you are dedicated, if you are focused.
"Raheem embodies that. Nothing is given to you in life, you have to fight all the way."
Southgate said he doesn't think it is right to clamp down on players expressing themselves with tattoos.
"The tattoo was done a few months ago and there were pictures of him with it while he was in a Man City kit. You have to decide why it's a story now and not then," he said.
"Tattoos are very personal. A lot of our players have tattoos and they are wrapped up in a lot of deep stories.
"I don't see why we should be involved in policing that."
Sterling also has the support of his team-mates, according to Manchester United and England forward Jesse Lingard.
"We've reassured him, that's what friends are for, that's what team-mates are for," Lingard said.
"This England team is a tight-knit group, we stick together through the ups and downs, the negatives and the positives."