Hoo-ha aside, Sterling is best judge of own state
RAHEEM Sterling was, for one night, the darling of the World Cup. Essentially a winger but deployed in Manaus, Brazil, in a central role by England to surprise Italy's renowned defenders with his quick, daring and intuitive runs, he reminded many a Brazilian of Garrincha, the "Little Bird" who played so thrillingly for the national team 50 years before.
Four months after that memorable evening in Manaus, Sterling is becalmed. He was left out of England's starting XI against Estonia on Sunday after telling the coach he felt tired.
Sterling is 19.
His absence from the start of the European qualifier has stirred a polemic throughout his sport, and not just in England. Some people sneer and wonder how a teenager can be tired playing twice, or at the most three times a week for a salary that many would die for.
Others fear for him. They argue that the expectations placed upon a youth playing a man's game for Liverpool and for England might very well lead to burnout.
And yet others view this more cynically. They hear the Liverpool manager and the England manager voicing different opinions that boil down to the old club versus country debate.
The club versus country context is not of his, or Liverpool's, making. Fifa and Uefa crowd the calendar with ever more games, more demands on the same bodies, more encroachment on the free time of star players.
Most of them, from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on down, do not complain. The game makes them their fortunes, but a career can be short and hangs alarmingly on injuries. Sterling is potentially an heir to their place on the pedestal that millions of kids aspire to be on.
Liverpool and England share data from statisticians and sports scientists who can tell them at the flip of a chart whether a player is working too hard. The club and the country - and therefore Sterling - even have the same psychiatrist, who attends training sessions and is available for any player to talk through his doubts and aspirations.
Historians can inform Sterling that he was the second-youngest player to have represented Liverpool (after Jack Robinson) when he made his debut, and was the third-youngest player ever for England's senior national team (after Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney) in modern times.
Michael Owen made his debut with Liverpool when he was 17 and with England when he was 18. He is now a TV commentator and regularly talks about how he ignored - to his detriment - warnings about playing too many games too young.
Rooney, England's captain, has come through those risks and is on the verge of his 100th cap.
Sterling can hear what they, and the experts, say about growing into his prime. But only he knows what his body tells him.