If you hated Raheem Sterling, you might call him England's Next Great Star. That title is a sort of unkindness in itself, given that the bestowment of it seems to invariably sink whoever it's attached to. On a training pitch in Hertfordshire right now, Theo Walcott is doubtless whacking a cross into the next county, those very words ringing loud in his ears.
It's a hype- and pressure-heaping superlative that can function as a millstone, but it's also a compliment. Sterling is 20, powerboat fast, and has a charisma about him with the ball at his feet. He's raw, too, and there can be a lack of thoughtfulness to his play in the final third, an overeagerness to do something that overwhelms his ability to do something that might actually work. But his potential stimulates the imagination. He really might be England's Next Great Star, however unkind or unfair or dooming a compliment that is.
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As tends to happen with good young players, there are rumours Sterling is being targeted by Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, and pretty much every other sizable club in Europe. This buzz doesn't amount to much; Bayern being genuinely interested in Sterling is as probable as his agent blithely making shit up and circulating it to the media. It's not that Bayern don't have a reason to be interested. It's just that the rest of it is the rest of it.
But the rumours emanates from a bona fide truth: Sterling wants out of Liverpool. He feels he's outgrown the club, that he needs to go elsewhere in order to compete for domestic and Champions League trophies. He'd also like a massive pay rise, but wouldn't we all?
What might get lost in all the lecturing, strong-jawed takes from importunate internet megaphone-wielders in the wake of Sterling's desires being made public is that this sort of thing occurs annually, all over Europe. Up-and-comers decide they can't accomplish what they wish to at their current clubs, go to management, and ask to be sold. Each summer, the cycle begins anew: Getafe's standout moves to Villarreal; Villarreal's standout moves to Leverkusen; Leverkusen's standout moves to Chelsea. Unless a club is at the very top of the food chain, they're always a mildly disappointing season and/or an expensive transfer offer away from losing one of their best players. Liverpool aren't in Europe's uppermost echelon; if they were Luis Suárez would still be playing at Anfield. Sterling thinks highly enough of himself for that to be a problem for him. None of this is unreasonable, or even unusual.
It's worth noting both that Sterling has two years left on his contract, and that this fact is nearly completely irrelevant to whether he'll move on in the summer. Contracts are treated more like tentative plans than ironclad agreements.
And when a player wants out of a deal, he more often than not gets his way. Sterling, technically locked up by Liverpool until 2017, most likely won't be forced to honour his commitment. Of course, Liverpool held onto Suárez for one year longer than the Uruguayan would have liked, but as a general rule players are not often sat down and told they're shit out of luck. When they want to leave, they leave. The club's consolation is a fat transfer fee.
For fans of clubs smaller than the Real Madrids of this world, it is a frustrating reality. They're regularly saying goodbye to the players they love, which explains why Liverpool supporters might be particularly salty about a 20-year-old they expected to stick around for a while agitating for an exit. It's not so much that Sterling wants to leave, but that he wants to leave so soon after emerging as an exciting talent. Some of the grousing from the Kop is the anguish of the blindsided.
Some of it, though, is insidious: understandable upset curdling into angry name-calling — Sterling's a brat, a traitor — that indulges in all the worst, wrongheaded, paternalistic, You Belong To Me fan bullshit. It's surprising that this ugliness is so common in Europe given that player movement is so fluid and frequent. Fans are constantly being reminded that a vast majority of players who wear their club's colours are doing so fleetingly, usually by those players abruptly winding up somewhere else.
Raheem Sterling is no special case, just a high-profile one. Because he's so good — and could be great in the future — he's attracting an inordinate amount of venom. But he's simply doing what he thinks is best for his career, working the system the way many of his peers have done and will continue to do. Unfortunately for Liverpool fans, their feelings are collateral damage in this painful, ordinary process. Sterling might still be England's Next Great Star. For now, he's just another bright cog in a big, strange machine.