Everyone’s talking about… Raheem Sterling’s leg

Hold the front page. Footballer gets dodgy tattoo on calf.

No, Adam Lallana isn’t spending his summer inking cattle after missing out on England’s World Cup squad. Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling – one of the nation’s key players for the tournament – has had a foot-long machine gun etched onto his right leg.

And the media has been all over it. The Sun kicked things off with the front-page splash “Raheem shoots himself in the foot”, calling the tattoo “sick”. It quoted Mothers Against Guns founder Lucy Cope, who suggested the player should be dropped by manager Gareth Southgate.

Indeed, against the backdrop of horrific, gun-related violence seen around the world in the past year, having an assault rifle tattooed on your body ahead of a competition broadcasted to millions of people around the world could be considered an ill-advised move.

But here’s where knowing all sides of a story is important—and why a tabloid editor or two might have thought twice before going to print.

Following a torrent of abuse across all media platforms, Sterling used Instagram – where the tattoo had first been spotted – to explain its meaning. Namely, to commemorate his father—who was shot and killed in Jamaica when Sterling was just two years old.

“I made a promise to myself I would never touch a gun in my lifetime,” he added. “I shoot with my right foot so it has a deeper meaning.” He also suggested the tattoo was unfinished.

Referencing Sterling’s ongoing battle with the tabloids, the Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone called the Sun’s coverage: “the latest twist in an endless, and bizarre, character assassination”.

Hattenstone argued that Sterling “is a victim of vicious tabloid snobbery”, citing coverage in the likes of the Sun, the Daily Star and the Daily Mail that appears to criticise the footballer for everything from spending too much money to spending too little.

There was one tabloid on Sterling’s side, however. John Cross, chief football writer for the Daily Mirror – who did Sterling’s first ever national newspaper interview – penned a heartfelt defence.

And the Football Association has since offered its support to the player, while the Sun has published several further articles on the story—all far more balanced

There were a few differences of opinion on social media, too.

It was a busy day for former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan. Ever the controversial tweeter, he took the time to row with former England footballer Gary Lineker and BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker, before chiding ex-cricketer Kevin Pietersen.

Whoever’s side you’re on in this debate, it could easily be argued that certain sections of the media have set about dismantling and discrediting one of England’s most exciting footballers—just two weeks before the World Cup. Is this indicative of attitudes towards the sport and its players today?

For better or worse, the social media era has given everybody a public platform to voice opinions. Where football is concerned, that means shared ecstasy in moments of glory—but death threats to goalkeepers after mistakes in big matches.

As Lineker tweeted during the Sterling debate: “Unique to this country to attempt to destroy our players morale before a major tournament. It’s weird, unpatriotic and sad.”

And Harry Kane, England’s captain this summer, questioned the mentality of fans who “ridicule” players on social media, in an interview with Sky Sports.

It’s been 52 years since England won the World Cup, and they’re far from favourites this time around. But the British media is hugely influential. Surely, England fans would rather both the population and the press throw their weight behind positively supporting their team, until given reason to do otherwise.