Neil Humphreys: Modern hero deserves a Sterling treble
Manchester City and England star shines on and off the pitch
Raheem Sterling knew exactly what he was doing. When he hit the "send" button, he was effectively risking one career to begin another.
With one Instagram post, the Manchester City winger knew he was going to be pilloried and praised in equal measure, a role model for minorities and the cliched black man with a big mouth.
But he did it anyway.
Goodbye, quiet footballer. Hello, spokesman for racial equality.
On Dec 9, 2018, Sterling decided to speak up for racially abused footballers. Tomorrow, he'll step out in the FA Cup final as a hero to millions.
An exaggeration? Ask the people most affected by Sterling's activism.
Ask Callum Hudson-Odoi at Chelsea. Ask Tosin Adarabioyo at Manchester City. Ask Danny Rose after he played for England in Montenegro. Ask Juventus' Moise Kean after he was idiotically criticised for suffering racist abuse, by his own team-mate Leonardo Bonucci.
Sterling defended them all.
He should have been falling out of a nightclub, or stumbling into a Ferrari showroom, to conform to the archaic stereotypes that one or two media elements had forced upon him.
But Sterling fought back.
He wouldn't go quietly into the night.
In a season when European leagues have often mirrored their fractured societies, Sterling tired of the monkey noises and used his social-media platforms to promote something other than football boots and fragrances.
He compared the lopsided coverage of black and white footballers. He highlighted the underlying racial tropes and triggered an international discussion that the sport should have had years ago.
FINEST DOMESTIC SEASON
And Sterling did this in the middle of what promises to be the finest domestic season in the history of English football. He did this whilst scoring 23 goals across all competitions for City, picking up 14 assists and knocking in six for England.
And he's still only 24.
City are one victory away from winning a historic domestic treble and it feels like the very least that Sterling deserves, almost the bare minimum for a young man who has gone above and beyond, on both sides of the white line.
In football commentary, the term "bravery" is thrown around like a bad tackle.
He was brave to come back from first-class medical treatment and utilise his genetic gifts. He was brave to give an interview to explain his failure to do a job he's paid handsomely for.
In using the term so liberally, genuine acts of courage can be lumped in with the more mundane, as if Sterling's decision to take on international racism is the same as a player's decision to limp on with a slightly sore leg.
In the big bravery stakes, it's not even close.
Sterling stands alone.
The Football Writers' Association acknowledged this point with its Player of the Year honour, citing his decision to go public on racist abuse as being of equal importance to his success on the pitch.
Of course it was, but begrudging types must argue otherwise.
He's a footballer, not a social worker, and should be judged accordingly, as if the game was entirely about goal stats and devoid of emotion.
The Champions League comebacks of Tottenham and Liverpool were messy affairs, in defensive, tactical terms, but they were unforgettable because they had a deeper emotional resonance.
Just as another football highlight didn't involve a football.
After enduring the monkey noises in Montenegro, Sterling scored in England's Euro 2020 qualifier back in March.
He cupped his ears to the crowd and was met with a wall of silence. From monstrous to the meek, the racists had nothing to say. He had won.
Sterling then offered the haters some advice on social media: Get some education.
It was perfect. Just like his season.
He hasn't put a foot wrong. His maturity defines him, in every sense.
Until this campaign, his temperament was supposedly his blind spot. He missed too many sitters when it really mattered.
This season, he fluffed one against Crystal Palace. The younger Sterling would've drifted off like a stroppy teenager.
This Sterling hung around and scored twice.
Previously, Pep Guardiola wasn't sure if his erratic winger was the man for the biggest occasions. Now he's building his side around the Englishman.
When Sterling steps out at Wembley, he'll be an integral member of perhaps the greatest squad of all time.
Whether he goes on to become one of the best of his generation is neither here nor there. He's already among the bravest.
One day, a statue will have his name on it.
Until then, the man should toast his humbling achievements with a treble.
Raheem Sterling is one of only three players in Europe’s top five leagues to have scored and assisted at least 10 goals in the last two seasons. The others are Lionel Messi and Leroy Sane.