Rio Ferdinand

I’ve got to know Raheem Sterling pretty well in the past few months and I speak to him quite a lot. He’s a good guy and an impressive person, as well as an excellent player.

I’m proud of who he’s become off the pitch, and you have to admire how he’s always worked so hard and looked at ways he can improve on it.

I get the sense that playing for England this summer can be a bit of a release for him after a difficult end to his club season, and he 100% would have felt like that after his winning goal against Croatia.

‘This is me and I am back now’ are the kind of emotions I think that would have come out when he was celebrating after scoring, and I can completely understand why.

I’d texted him on the morning of that game to wish him luck. He is a man of relatively few words when it comes to texting back, but I loved his reply which was simply “it’s time”.

And it was his time, because he scored the winner. That was his first goal at a major international finals and it was a beautiful moment for him.

I really don’t understand why he’s not a fans’ favourite for England already because, as a footballer, he doesn’t have anything to prove.

You only have to look at his output for Manchester City as well as his country to see what an important player he is for both.

Graphic showing Raheem Sterling has been involved in 110 goal involvements - goals or assists - for Manchester City over the past three seasons
Sterling has been involved in 110 goal involvements – goals or assists – for Manchester City over the past three seasons. Jadon Sancho has managed 109 and Harry Kane 106.

During the past three seasons he has had more goal involvements for his club than anyone else in the England squad – over 100, which is more than Jadon Sancho for Borussia Dortmund and Harry Kane at Tottenham.

On top of that, he has scored 12 goals in his past 18 England games – including our only goal at this tournament so far.

Like anyone else, his form can go up and down of course but, in terms of quality and pedigree, he is not to be questioned.

He has grown into the person he is

Raheem is 26 now – although it feels like he has been around a lot longer than that – and he has shown his maturity in lots of different ways.

When he speaks, he is very genuine and honest. He’s been quite guarded down the years about his personal life but he has not wasted opportunities to speak about important issues like discrimination in the game.

Raheem Sterling: “The only disease right now is the racism that we’re fighting”

But Raheem hasn’t just appeared from nowhere and started talking about racial equality and topics like that, he has grown into the person he is.

I think it takes time and confidence in your own skin, firstly to know where you are at, and then to come out and talk about it. He has spoken very eloquently and been quite punchy at times, and rightly so.

You have to admire that because plenty of guys like him have got the profile to get attention, but you have to be brave to utilise it – and put your head above the parapet – because of what comes back to you when you do.

I see that confidence when he plays too, like against Croatia when he didn’t look like a player who had spent the last few weeks of the season on the bench for City.

He was our brightest attacking spark in the first 15 minutes, took responsibility for taking the game to them and set the tone for the rest of the match.

Like the rest of the England team he found it a lot more difficult against Scotland in our second group game but that is all part of the territory at these tournaments.

As flat as that team performance was on Friday, it was not for the want of trying.

I experienced exactly the same during my era playing for England, when we would come off and people would say ‘you didn’t do this’ and I would just think, well we tried.

It is the same for Raheem as it is for everyone else but, with him in particular, there is no chance that one poor performance is going to knock the stuffing out of him for the whole tournament.

He is experienced enough to know it was just one game, and I am looking forward to seeing how he bounces back from it against the Czech Republic, like he has done so many times before.

I’d love to see him dominate Euro 2020

It would be a good idea for most of the England squad to come off social media during this European Championship – but not Sterling.

Although for some reason he is one of our players who seems to get the most criticism on those platforms, and sadly it was the same again after our draw with Scotland, I just don’t think it bothers him that much.

Raheem has got the mindset to get beyond that, and he doesn’t need any validation of his performances.

He’s used to seeing his selection being questioned for club as well as country, even when it is clearly ridiculous to do so and, like a lot of the really top players, he is able to use that negativity as fuel.

You can see he has a steeliness about him and, far from feeling any pressure, he will just see this tournament as the perfect stage to show people what he can do.

Raheem Sterling's tattoo on his left forearm shows him as child, looking up at Wembley
Raheem Sterling’s tattoo on his left forearm shows him as child, looking up at Wembley

For any England player, Wembley has always been special – not just the boys from London. It’s part of the fabric of our game.

Everyone will feel that attachment when we play there during these Euros, but Raheem grew up so close to the stadium – he used to ride around it on his bike – that it means a little bit more to him, I’m sure.

You can tell that from the tattoo on his forearm which shows him as a kid looking at the stadium with a number 10 shirt on, hoping to be the King of Wembley one day.

Fingers crossed, this tournament is when that happens – I’d really love to see him own and dominate it the way I know he can.

Rio Ferdinand was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.

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