The Manchester City forward grew up in the shadow of the national stadium and is on the verge of winning England’s first title in 55 years.
Before leaving Oakington Manor Primary School, little than a half mile south of Wembley Stadium, an 11-year-old Raheem Sterling wrote in his yearbook, “I’ve become a football superstar.”
His prophecy has come to pass. England’s first major tournament final in 55 years is being led by the “Boy from Brent.”
The boos Sterling used to hear as a kid when he was playing football in the shadow of the Wembley arch are now directed at him.
There are still 90 minutes left – and they are the most important 90 minutes of the summer – yet Sterling has already won the European Championship.
With just one more win – against Italy in Sunday’s final – the Manchester City forward will be a strong contender for the tournament’s player of the year award after an incredible run of games.
The Manchester City attacker has contributed unpredictability to England’s control of their matches, from breaking the stalemate in a tight opening group game against Croatia to pushing Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel into a 119th-minute save in the semi-finals.
With two holding midfielders and safety-first full-backs, Gareth Southgate’s pragmatic strategy has increased the pressure on England’s creative forces to make the difference.
While other members of the squad have had their moments, Sterling has constantly delivered the fire that has lit up England’s performances.
For a man who has the arch tattooed on his elbow as a reminder of where he came from, it would be difficult not to be inspired by the familiar Wembley surroundings.
On the coach ride to the stadium, passing by friends’ houses and childhood sites must undoubtedly serve as a source of inspiration.
After his goal in the 1-0 win over Croatia, he said, “I’ve always said if I play at Wembley in a major tournament, in my back garden, I’m scoring.”
Sterling’s performances at Euro 2020 have been so much more than just enthusiasm, and he has played a big role in City’s recent years of exceptional success.
There’s no denying his passion and will to achieve, attributes that have been evident throughout his career, from his early days with QPR in west London to his move to Liverpool as a 15-year-old and then to City in search of success.
His intelligence and self-assurance, on the other hand, have made him one of Southgate’s most trustworthy players.
Sterling was involved in almost all of England’s best attacking moments against Denmark, cutting inside and firing a low shot at Schmeichel early on, twice matching Bukayo Saka’s line-breaking runs when England fell behind, forcing Simon Kjaer into an own goal, winning a controversial penalty, and then almost adding a third in exasperation.
Sterling has been involved in 26 goals in 24 matches for Southgate since the 2018 World Cup, scoring 15 and assisting on another 11.
The 26-year-old is willing to take on responsibilities both on and off the pitch as a senior figure in the dressing room.
Southgate’s young group has a sense of oneness that hasn’t always been present in England’s previous tournaments, and Sterling should be credited for helping to develop that harmony.
When they were chastised for kneeling in protest of racism, including from members of the UK government, they rallied together, with Southgate stating their reasoning in a thoughtful manner.
Sterling, like others in the locker room, has faced racism and discrimination throughout his career, with social media becoming a major issue.
England has led the fight against discrimination, with inspirational figures like Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford, and given the country something to be proud of following the Covid-19 epidemic.
Even if Sterling was slightly taken aback when he was pointedly questioned if he had earned his place after scoring the opening against Croatia, they have a wisdom and patience to deal with difficult situations for a squad so young.
“Have I made a case for my choice?” When pressed, he answered magnanimously, “I’m trying [to do so].”
To be fair to the questioner, despite guiding City to a third Premier League title in four years and starting a Champions League final, Sterling had not concluded the club season in his finest form.
His statistics dropped after three seasons of scoring more than 20 goals, yet 14 goals in all competitions is still the fourth-best total of his career.
He was also replaced in Pep Guardiola’s starting lineup by England teammate Phil Foden, and his recall for the European final against Chelsea was unexpected.
Sterling has been one of City’s most ardent supporters, with the manager personally assuring him of his faith in him shortly after taking over the club and as he faced criticism after England’s humiliating Euro 2016 exit.
Sterling has never stopped listening and striving to improve, whether it’s receiving advise minutes after winning the 2019 FA Cup despite scoring twice, absorbing criticism after scoring a hat-trick, or being challenged to prove Guardiola wrong for omitting him for key matches at the conclusion of the season.
The reaction has always been unequivocal. With his contract approaching the end of its two-year term and the possibility of new contract discussions, his future at City will be examined after the Euros are done.
First and foremost, he faces the difficult task of putting a stop to England’s 55-year agony and bringing the summer of Sterling to a close.