Raheem Sterling is special. Hungary are not. As racist abuse and plastic cups rained down from the stands in Budapest, Sterling silenced them with a masterful display. He was England’s brightest player in the most testing of circumstances, scoring the first and setting up the second as Gareth Southgate’s men showed no sign of a Euro 2020 hangover.
That’s now 16 goals in his last 24 appearances for the Manchester City man who has repaid Southgate’s faith on multiple occasions. In his last 11 qualifying matches for the Three Lions, he has now been directly involved in 17 goals in his last 11 qualifying matches. They are Lionel Messi level numbers.
But another man of the match display was once again overshadowed by a disgraceful home crowd. They began vociferously booing the knee as England’s players continued their fight for equality, and that was only the start of things. UEFA punished Hungary for their behaviour at Euro 2020 by forcing them to play two games behind closed doors, but as this is a FIFA competition, that ban doesn’t apply. Whatever penalties are thrown their way after this latest showing, need to make a real difference. This cannot continue.
On the pitch, England got to work in the second half, after a competent if unspectacular first 45. Jack Grealish fed the overlapping Mason Mount who found Sterling in the middle who made no mistake with the finish into the bottom corner. His tribute to his friend Steffie Gregg, who passed away just days ago enraged the home fans further, who threw missiles, and abused Sterling as he scored. Given the boos that engulfed the taking of the knee, they were probably as enraged by the colour of his skin as the fact that he had just put England ahead.
Hungary are likely to be punished for their fans’ behaviour once again, but serious ramifications are unlikely to be held against them given UEFA’s past punishments. The fact that England players that scored or even took corners were pelted with plastic cups crossed the line and that is without considering the racist abuse Sterling received.
The English winger instead did his talking on the pitch in a hostile atmosphere. Having scored the first, he set up Kane for the second as the England captain headed home from close range. The Tottenham man could have had a hat-trick as he spurned a number of good chances, but that goal, his 40th, does take him just one behind Michael Owen in the all-time charts.
Harry Maguire headed home a Luke Shaw corner for the third as England crowned their superiority with a stunning second half performance, but once again this game was marred by the events in the stands. The only brief silences came when England found the net, as Declan Rice added a fourth from outside the box to secure four wins from four for the visiting side.
ITV reported monkey chants were directed at both Sterling and teenager Jude Bellingham as he warmed up on the touchline, which is something no footballer should have to go through. After the horrific abuse England’s black players received following the Euro 2020 final from their own fans, there is a certain amount of hypocrisy here, but it did feel like our country was once again educated on these matters.
The longer people boo, the longer England shall take the knee. Sterling as a black man has gone to hell and back, battled unfair criticism from his own press and now is an undroppable cog of England’s front line. In these most testing of circumstances, there is nobody we’d rather have representing our country.