On Wednesday, Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling skipped his team’s daily training session, supposedly because he felt ill. “Sterling is now set to be assessed by a club doctor, as is standard practice at Liverpool when there are doubts regarding a player’s health,” ESPN FC reported. In reality, there is very little doubt regarding Sterling’s health: As Lionel Messi demonstrated last January, in European soccer “illness” has nothing to do with bodily discomfort. It’s merely a rhetorical tool wielded by unscrupulous agents, an especially transparent example of the cynical bullshit that dominates summer transfer news.
Sterling, who has reportedly informed Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers that he isn’t “in the right frame of mind” for a pre-season tour, has spent the last four months angling for a transfer to Manchester City. In April, his refusal to sign a new contract overshadowed the admittedly-not-that-impressive conclusion to Liverpool’s league campaign. Then City submitted a 40-million-pound bid for Sterling, which Liverpool promptly rejected.
Over the last couple of weeks, Sterling has been vigorously lampooned. BBC pundit Jamie Carragher recently claimed that Sterling has permanently sullied his public image. “He’s starting to get a reputation that could be hard to rid himself of in the future,” Carragher said. The Daily Mail’s Ian Ladyman compared Sterling to Pieree van Hooijdonk, the Dutch forward who infamously went on strike in 1998 when Nottingham Forest refused to sell him. But frankly, Sterling’s recent conduct isn’t particularly unusual or surprising. Every year, celebrity players lobby for transfers to richer, more successful clubs: the rather well-paid Cristiano Ronaldo declared himself a “slave” the summer he pushed for a move to Real Madrid. That’s how modern soccer has operated for at least the last two decades. Once Sterling makes his City debut, nobody but a few aggrieved Liverpool supporters will remember that he feigned illness during pre-season.
On the other hand, Manchester City’s involvement in this transfer-window tug-of-war highlights a relatively recent, genuinely alarming trend that has actively stymied the development of young English talent. In 2010, the Premier League instituted the Homegrown Player Rule, a regulation intended to boost the fortunes of the English national team. Under the HPR, clubs are required to include at least eight homegrown players on their 25-man rosters. The rule targeted teams like City – big spenders that had invested hundreds of millions of pounds in foreign signings, rather than nurturing academy prospects or recruiting the best English players from smaller clubs.