IT was the blissful smile of a man with all of England at his feet.
When star winger Raheem Sterling whipped a close-range shot against the flailing legs of the Denmark keeper in the dying seconds of Wednesday’s Euro 2020 semi-final win, he did not grimace or swear at a missed chance to seal the match.
He simply raised his hands to his head and flashed the radiant grin of a man whose childhood dream was to be “King of Wembley”.
Known as Raz to his fellow players, 26-year-old Raheem personifies the sense of fun and solidarity the England team has tapped into.
Amid the sweat and toil, it appeared he was simply relishing the occasion as the final whistle neared.
And the internet has exploded in love for a player who had described himself as the #TheHatedOne in an Instagram post at Euro 2016.
After the latest victory at this Euros, one tweeter wrote: “I dote on Raheem Sterling’s wondrous and sweet smile.”
Another added: “Raheem Sterling: A god among men with the smile of an ANGEL.”
Wembley had rocked to a bespoke version of song Freed From Desire by Gala in homage to Raheem.
“Sterling’s on fire,” the crowd sang. “Your defence is terrified.”
The Manchester City star has been England’s best player in the tournament, spearheading the team’s assent to their first major final in 55 years.
With 67 England caps already under his belt, he is a national role model on and off the field.
He’s the same lad he was when he was 16. He’s great to have around the place. He’s vocal. He’s a leader on the pitch
Last month he was awarded an MBE for his efforts in fighting for racial equality.
Before the game, captain Harry Kane said: “People maybe underestimate him as a person and as a leader.”
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who first played alongside Raheem when they were teenagers, said: “He’s the same lad he was when he was 16. He’s great to have around the place.
“He’s vocal. He’s a leader on the pitch.”
For his part, Sterling has not forgotten his roots on his heady rise to England immortality.
His tweets during the tournament have been signed off with the hashtag #BoyfromBrent.
Like something from a tear-jerking movie, Raheem grew up just a decent goal kick away from Wembley Stadium in North West London.
He told the Players’ Tribune website: “I grew up in the shadow of my dream. Literally.
“I watched the new Wembley stadium go up from my back garden.
“One day, I walked outside and I saw this massive arch in the sky. It was rising up over the top of the housing estates like a mountain.
“I used to kick about in this green right by my house, and I could take a shot on goal then turn round to celebrate and the Wembley arch would literally be right above my head. It was like you were there.
“I was really like, I can play there. I can do it.”
As well as dreaming of being “the King of Wembley one day”, Raheem even has a tattoo of the stadium’s iconic 133-metre arch on his forearm.
But to realise his dream, he had to battle tragedy, poverty and adversity.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Raheem Shaquille Sterling began life sharing a three-bedroom bungalow with his ten-strong extended family.
His father, Phillip Slater, was gunned down in 1996 in Jamaica when Raheem was just two years old after being wrongly caught up in a gang turf war.
The star would later say that losing his dad, “shaped my entire life”.
When he was four, his mum Nadine Clarke travelled to the UK to forge a new life for her family.
He used to kick a juice carton around
He and elder stepsister Lakima were cared for by his gran, Joy Morris.
She said of her grandson: “His life hasn’t been easy. It was a tough place to grow up and he had to be sharp.
“We didn’t have lots of money but we were a very close family and we helped one another out with raising the children.
“His love for football came from playing at the front of the house when he was three. He used to kick a juice carton around.”
Raheem and Lakima then joined their mum in London, where she worked as a cleaner to help pay for a degree course.
Sterling remembers waking at 5am before school to help his mum clean toilets at a hotel in North London.
Lakima was also instrumental in helping him achieve his dreams, travelling miles by three buses to get him to football training.
Raheem told Players Tribune: “Mum would never let me go to training alone. And she always had to work, so my sister would have to take me all the way out to Heathrow.
“Three buses. The 18 to the 182 to the 140. The red double-deckers with the blue wool Eighties vibe on the seats. Spent ages on those.
“We’d leave at 3.15pm and get home at 11pm. Every. Single. Day. She’d sit upstairs in the little cafe and chill until I was done with training.
“Imagine being 17 years old and doing that for your little brother. And I never once heard her say, ‘Nah, I don’t wanna take him’.
“At the time, I didn’t understand how much she was sacrificing.”
Aged eight, Raheem was referred to Vernon House, a school for children struggling because of behavioural issues.
He’s as humble as they come. It was never about the money, it was about the football. He was one of the nicest boys I’ve ever mentored
There he was assigned mentor Clive Ellington, who he credits with kickstarting his career.
The youth worker said: “I took him to the park one day and I thought, ‘He’s got something about him’, he was outshining all the others.”
Raheem was not even playing for a team at the time, so Clive invited him to a training session at local club Alpha & Omega FC.
Clive added: “As coaches we stood there, arms folded, just thinking ‘What on earth have we unearthed here?’, because he was a gem.”
And he insists that Raheem has never been motivated by money.
He said: “He never discussed money or cars. He’s as humble as they come. It was never about the trimmings, it was about the football.
“He was one of the nicest boys I’ve ever mentored.”
When Clive drove his young protege to games he would hold out a pen as a pretend microphone and say: “Raheem Sterling, how do you feel about making your debut for England at 16?”
Raheem would look at him, “like I was a nutter”.
But Clive was only a year out, as Raheem made his Three Lions debut aged 17 against Sweden.
The star says of his mentor: “He was the person who made me realise there’s more to life than being a naughty kid.”
The 5ft 7in striker joined QPR at the age of 11 and moved to Liverpool at 15 in a £500,000 deal.
Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard told The Times: “He was a very respectful kid. He was someone who hung on to every word.
“He always wanted to learn, he used to take information on.”
In 2015, then an England regular, he joined Manchester City in a £50million deal.
Shortly before the 2018 World Cup he was pictured with a tattoo of an MI6 assault rifle on his right leg.
Raheem explained on Instagram: “When I was two my father died from being gunned down.
“I made a promise to myself I would never touch a gun in my lifetime. I shoot with my right foot, so it has a deeper meaning.”
When the dust finally settles on his stellar career, he will perhaps be remembered as much for fighting racism as the trophies he has won.
Having been subjected to a barrage of abuse, he has used his profile to call for equality.
When some fans booed the England players for taking the knee before games, he expressed his “disappointment”.
Now reportedly earning £300,000 a week, Raheem lives with his fiancée Paige Milian, 26, and their sons, Thiago, three, and Thai-Cruz, one, in a Cheshire village.
He also has an eight-year-old daughter, Melody Rose, from a previous relationship.
When England reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, Raheem had failed to find the net.
Now, with three goals already this time, the smiling “King of Wembley” returns to his beloved Brent for Sunday’s final, ready to take his place among England’s sporting immortals.
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