With the World Cup looming just over the horizon, it should be no surprise to see the England national football team dominating the back pages.
Look more closely, though, and you see that the stories being reported aren’t the usual pre-tournament page-filler but a rather more sobering picture is being drawn up.
One of the country’s most exciting young footballers of the last decade, being hung out to dry because of a tattoo on his leg.
A somewhat late-blooming 27-year-old, telling his family not to come to see him play in his first World Cup because he fears they will be racially abused.
The same player, opening up to the nation about a hitherto secret struggle with mental health and depression, his uncle’s suicide, racial abuse against his mother and an armed attack against his brother.
It makes for downbeat reading. There is little of the waka waka-fuelled hype of 2010, none of the last hurrahs for the Golden Generation predicted in 2014. This is not WAGs on shopping sprees or David Beckham’s touchline tailoring, this is racism and mental health. This is important.
Social media at its best and worst
You go on Twitter after reading these headlines and you expect the worst. You don’t have to look too far to find it.
There may always be the paper-thinly veiled racism of the anti-Sterling brigade, conned by sections of the UK media into believing that the affable, self-deprecating 23-year-old with a tattoo of his Mum is, in fact, the face of everything wrong with modern football.
The man who eats breakfast despite failing to win an award, the man who wears headphones despite losing a game, the man who faces racial abuse in a car park despite just turning up to work on a morning.
But ‘look for the helpers’, as the saying goes. Social media can be a genuinely awful place when issues such as these arise but the last week or so has brought about a swell of support for first Raheem Sterling and now Danny Rose.
People are shining a spotlight on The Sun’s treatment of Sterling and exposing it for what it is: a targeted personal assault. And with each unprovoked attack, more and more people are standing behind the player.
Perhaps in the era of Donald and Nigel and Katie and Piers and, weirdly, Roseanne, good people have finally just had enough.
The swell of popular support for Sterling in the aftermath of the tattoo non-incident was overwhelming with fists sure to be pumped and ‘Go on, lad’s sure to bayed through gritted jaws should he pull out some of his better performances in Russia.
The country is behind Rose
And now, we have a Premier League regular and an England star telling his story, the story of his private battle with depression amid a sea of personal and career-based struggles.
And once again, it seems as though the public is right behind him. As they should be, but as in the past they might not have been.
Does this signal, then, a change in the relationship between the national team and the public?
That Rose felt comfortable talking to the media about issues he admitted he hasn’t spoken to with his parents is, on the face of things, promising. Perhaps after seeing the response to the Sterling story, Rose was not worried about a potential backlash, and he has been right.
The immediate reaction to the story was not ‘man up’, not ‘how can somebody who has it so good possibly be depressed?’ and not ‘just get over it’, but an open and compassionate discussion on mental health.
Five years from now, we could well be looking back at a watershed moment in the history of mental health in sport.
Rose has been courageously open, unflinchingly honest, and genuinely inspiring. And the public has reacted admirably.
A relationship which feels different
While few hold real hopes of England lifting the World Cup this summer, plenty have spoken about the promising new feel to this England squad.
Now, this is not just confined to the pitch. We seem to be approaching a point where the England squad can be more than just a group of footballers but a group of people from which we can learn about the issues facing the modern world.
Sections of the media will continue in their efforts to turn the public against them but it is a relationship which is becoming more positive, more beneficial to both.
Black youngsters across Britain have in Sterling a dazzling role model in the face of repugnantly enduring racism in the modern world.
Mental health is one of the key issues facing and being fought by the youth of today, and Rose is now an important public figure in that struggle.
That the public has, for the most part, reacted so positively to both of these stories instils an amount of hope looking to the future. We don’t have to love our team as a sporting entity, but it seems like – at last – we are seeing them more like reflections and representations of ourselves.
They go through the same problems, are affected by the same issues as everyone else, and the general discourse around the team finally seems to be reflecting that.
The England national football team doesn’t exist to make the world a better place – but by encouraging a little more compassion into it, they might just have a good go.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss the potential winners of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast
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