I am a brutally honest person. So I will let you in on a little secret. Before I came to Manchester City, I didn’t really know what to make of this Raheem Sterling guy. I had never met him, and from what I’d read about him in the English press, I thought he was going to be a very different character.
I didn’t think he’d be a bad guy, really. But the tabloids were always claiming that he was arrogant. So I guess I thought he’d be … what do the English call it?
A bit of a dickhead, maybe?
Raheem and I have this strong connection, because we arrived at City around the same time, and there was a lot of negativity about us in the press. They said I was “the Chelsea reject.” They said Raheem was this flashy guy who left Liverpool for money. They said we were difficult characters.
Of course, when you read this stuff about yourself, you think, Me? I’m not difficult. This is ridiculous. These people don’t even know me! But honestly, when you read about other players, it influences the way you think. You can’t help it.
Then I got to City and I actually met Raheem, and we’d talk a bit after training, and I thought, Wait, this guy seems really cool? What’s the story here?
Truthfully, I don’t have many close friends — inside or outside of football. It takes me a really long time to open up to people. But over time, I got closer to Raheem, because our sons were born around the same time, so they would always play together. I really got to know Raheem, and I recognized what a smart and genuine person he is. He couldn’t be more different from what the tabloids were saying.
This is the real truth: Raheem is one of the nicest, most humble guys I’ve met in football.
Anyway, one day we were talking and Raheem said something like, “Mate, I thought you were going to be well different, before I met you. I thought you were going to be really distant and shy. But you’re actually quite funny.”
I said, “I have a dry humor.”
He said, “Well dry.”
Then he said, “So what did you think I’d be like?”
I said, “Honestly? I thought you were going to be really arrogant!”
He looked at me like, “Mate!”
And I looked at him like, “What? You thought I was going to be weird!”
It’s a great lesson, I think. In my experience, footballers can be a lot different than you expect, especially if you really get to know them.
This is definitely true for me as well.This is the real truth: Raheem is one of the nicest, most humble guys I’ve met in football.
I can understand why Raheem thought I was going to be difficult. Since I was 16 years old, there was a cloud that followed me around.
I’ll tell you the story, but please understand that talking about myself is pretty much the hardest thing in the world for me. Football? I could talk to you for hours about it. But anything personal, it’s tough for me.
It’s just my nature. I’m sure some people reading can relate to this.
Since I was a boy, I’ve always been extremely quiet, extremely shy. Didn’t have a PlayStation. Didn’t have many close friends. The way that I expressed myself was through football, and I was very content with that. Off the pitch, I was very introverted. I wouldn’t say one word to you. But on the pitch, I was so flammable. I know everyone had a laugh about that clip of me yelling at David Silva to “LET ME TALK!” and all that. But that’s probably quite tame compared to when I was a kid.
When you’re young … well, you don’t understand that people can take it the wrong way. I learned this the hard way, for sure.
When I was 14, I made a decision that really changed my life. I had the opportunity to go to the football academy in Genk, so I moved by myself from one side of Belgium to the other. It was two hours away from home, but I told my parents that I wanted to go.
The problem was that I was already shy in my hometown. At Genk, I was the new kid from the other side of the country who spoke in a funny dialect. It was lonely, for sure. I didn’t really learn to have a social life, because the only day we had off was Sunday, and that was my opportunity to travel home to see my family. So my first two years at the academy were probably the loneliest years I’ll ever live.
Maybe some people will think this was all a bit crazy, like, Why would you even do this at 14 years old?
The only answer I can give you is that when I was playing football, everything went away. Any problem I had, anything I was feeling, it all disappeared. When I’m playing football, everything is good. If you want to call it an obsession, then maybe it is my obsession.
Quite simply, it is my life.
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
The first year, I lived in a boarding house, where I had this tiny room with a bed and a desk and a sink. The next year, I was able to live with a foster family that the club paid to take in young players. Me and two other players moved in with them, and it helped me live a more normal life.
I still stayed by myself most of the time, but I thought everything was O.K. The year went by, and I was doing well in school, doing well in football. No fights. No problems.
At the end of the year, I packed my bags and said goodbye to my foster family.
They said, “We’ll see you after the break. Have a good summer.”
But then as soon as I got back to my parents’ house, I walked in the door and could see that my mother was crying. I thought maybe somebody had died or something.
I said, “What’s the problem?”
And my mother said the words that probably shaped my whole life.
She said, “They don’t want you to come back.”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
She said, “The foster family don’t want you there anymore.”
I said, “What? Why?”
She said, “Because of who you are. They said you’re too quiet. They can’t interact with you. They said you were difficult.”
I was really shocked. It felt like such a personal thing. The family never said anything to my face. There was never any problems. I stayed to myself in my room. I never bothered anyone. They waved goodbye to me like everything was fine. And then they informed the club that they didn’t want me anymore.
It was actually a huge issue for my career, because I was not a big star or anything, and suddenly the club thought I was a problem. They informed my parents that they didn’t want to pay for another foster family. I was going to have to go to another boarding house and live there — and not like a fancy one. It was more like a place for troubled kids.
I remember watching my mom crying, and just grabbing the ball. I went outside to this fence where I’d always played by myself as a kid.
One thing really stuck with me.
“Because of who you are.”
The words kept repeating in my head.
I kicked the ball against the fence for hours, and I remember at some point I actually said out loud, “Everything is going to be O.K. In two months, I’m going to be in the first team. No matter what, I am not coming back home a failure. No matter what.”
I went back to Genk after the summer break, and I had just been moved up to the second team. I was a nobody, really. But I was training like … pfffff. I had so much fire inside me. It was mad.
I remember the exact moment everything changed. We played on a Friday night. I started on the bench. When I came on in the second half, I just went crazy.
Yves Logghe/AP Images
They don’t want you anymore.
They don’t want you anymore.
Because of who you are.
I scored five goals in one half.
After that, you could see the change in everybody around the club. I earned a spot on the first team within two months. I think I beat my goal by a few days. And then, of course, the club told my family that they wanted to pay for a foster family again.
It’s funny to see the change in how people treat you in football when you’re doing well.
One day, the foster parents actually showed up at the club, and the woman came up to me like everything was a big misunderstanding. She said something like, “We wanted you to come back! We just wanted you to go to the boarding house during the week! You can stay with us on weekends!”
Maybe I should’ve found it funny, but at the time it wasn’t funny to me. They had really hurt me. So I said, “No. You threw me in the garbage. Now I’m doing well and you want me back?”
In the end, I should have just said thank you. That experience was the fuel for my career. But, unfortunately, that cloud still followed me around for a long time. When I was a young player at Genk, and even when I signed for Chelsea, you would read stories in the Belgian press about how I was a difficult person, and they would always bring up the story of my foster family.
It’s true that I can blow up sometimes, especially on the pitch. I tend to hold things inside, and then bang — I lose my head. Usually five seconds later, I’m calm again. But I feel a little bit misunderstood. Everything I’ve ever done in football really comes down to one thing — I want to play.
When I was at Chelsea, there was so much in the press about my relationship with José Mourinho. But the truth is that I only ever spoke to him twice. The plan was always for me to go on loan for a bit. So I went to Werder Bremen in 2012, and that season went great. When I came back to Chelsea the next summer, a few German clubs wanted to sign me. Klopp wanted me to come to Borussia Dortmund, and they played the kind of football that I enjoy. So I thought maybe Chelsea would let me go.
But then Mourinho texted me, “You are staying. I want you to be part of this team.”
So I thought, O.K., great. I’m in his plans.
When I arrived for preseason, the vibe was good. I started two of the first four games of the season, and I thought I played O.K. Not brilliant, but pretty good. After the fourth game, that was it. I was on the bench, and I never really got a chance again. I didn’t get an explanation. I was just out of favor for some reason.
And, of course, I made some mistakes myself. I was a bit naive about the way that you have to handle yourself as a Premier League footballer. What I think most fans don’t realize is that when you’re out of favor at a club, you don’t get nearly the same attention during training. At some clubs, it’s like you don’t exist anymore.
If it happened to me now, it wouldn’t be a problem. I know enough to be able to train on my own and take care of myself. But when you’re 21, you don’t understand what it takes. When I got another chance to play, against Swindon Town in the Cup, I wasn’t in good shape. And then that was pretty much it for me.
José called me into his office in December, and it was probably the second big life-changing moment for me. He had some papers in front of him, and he said, “One assist. Zero goals. Ten recoveries.”
It took me a minute to understand what he was doing.
Then he started reading the stats of the other attacking forwards — Willian, Oscar, Mata, Schürrle.
And it’s like — five goals, 10 assists, whatever.
José was just kind of waiting for me to say something, and finally I said, “But … some of these guys have played 15, 20 games. I’ve only played three. So it’s going to be different, no?”
It was so strange. We had a bit of a conversation about me going back out on loan. And Mata was also out of favor at the time, so José said, “Well, you know, if Mata leaves, then you will be the fifth choice instead of sixth.”
I was completely honest. I said, “I feel like the club doesn’t really want me here. I want to play football. I’d rather you sell me.”
I think José was a bit disappointed, but to be fair to him, I think he also understood that I absolutely needed to play. So the club ended up selling me, and there was no big problem at all. Chelsea got more than double the price they paid for me, and I got into a much better situation at Wolfsburg.
Everything changed then. But not just because of football. It was also because I had my (future) wife by my side. She helped me grow in ways that I’ve probably never expressed out loud — even to her. This is such an embarrassing story that I hesitate to tell it! But since I promised you honesty, then I guess I have to. And it’s pretty funny, anyway.
It started with a tweet. I only had a few thousand followers at the time, because I was still on loan at Werder Bremen. So I tweeted something about a match or whatever, and this pretty girl favorited it. I was single at the time, and my friend noticed it. So he said, “She looks like a nice girl, no? You should send her a message.”
And I literally said to him, “No, no, no. Come on. People don’t like me. They don’t get me. She won’t respond.”
So he grabbed my phone and started tapping out a message. He showed me the phone and said, “Come on, can I hit send?”
I was probably on the floor, cringing, but for some reason I said, “O.K. fine, send it.”
Says it all, no? I’m supposed to be this big footballer, and I didn’t even have the heart to slide into my future wife’s DMs! I didn’t dare!
But thankfully, he sent the message for me, and she responded. We got to know each other over text for a few months. It’s a lot easier for me once I get to know someone, so after that, I was good. It really was a beautiful thing. She changed my life in so many ways. Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without her.
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
People throw around this label of “WAGs,” and I think it’s really a shame. Because my wife, she’s the most important person in my life. She sacrificed everything to move away with me when she was 19 years old, to help me follow my dream. We’ve been on this journey together. I look up to her, in a way. She got me to come out of my shell with people a lot, and the way she’s handled everything is remarkable, really.
We had just found out that she was pregnant with our first child during the transfer window in 2015. Manchester City, PSG and Bayern were all interested in me. It was an extremely stressful time. We were just starting our family, and we had no idea whether the transfer would go through, or where we’d be living.
Personally, I wanted to go to City. I had Vinny Kompany texting me, telling me all about the project, saying that I would love it. And I just felt really good about the club. But I also didn’t want to be disrespectful to Wolfsburg because I genuinely loved my time there. So I just tried to shut my mouth and wait. Easy for me!
Every single day, literally for three weeks, my agent was saying, “It’s on. Wait, it’s off. It’s on. Wait, it’s off again.”
The stress really had an effect on my wife. One morning we woke up and she was really, really ill. We didn’t know what to do. We were worried that maybe there was something wrong with the baby.
Then she was in a lot of pain, and she was bleeding. We had no idea what was happening, so we rushed to the hospital. We were worried that maybe she’d lost the baby. It was the worst moment of my life, no question. You’re just sitting there, helpless. One minute, all you’re thinking about is a football transfer. And then, all of a sudden, your world is upside down.
Thank God, in the end, everything was O.K. with our son.
I don’t know what I would’ve done without him in my life. Everything good that’s ever happened to me in football, it’s nothing compared to my wife and my kids.
That was the third life-changing moment for me, because it made me realize that football is not life or death. I think I was probably too consumed by football for the first 23 years of my life. But when I met my wife, and especially after our first son was born, I was not doing it alone anymore. When we started our family and I came to play for City, everything just took off.
Especially when Pep arrived that second season.
Tom Flathers/Manchester City FC/Getty Images
Pep and I share a similar mentality. To be fair, he’s even more intense about football than I am. He’s so, so stressed — all the time. However much mental stress we are under as players, I think he is under twice as much. Because he is not just interested in winning. He wants perfection.
The first meeting I ever had with Pep, he sat me down and he said, “Kevin, listen. You can be — easily — a top five player in the world. Top five. Easily.”
I was shocked. But when Pep said it with so much belief, it changed my whole mentality. It was kind of genius, I think. Because I felt like I had to prove him right, instead of prove him wrong.
Most of the time, football is about negativity and fear. But with Pep, it’s about extreme positivity. He sets goals that are so high that they’re almost impossible to reach. He is a tactical master, yes. There’s no doubt about this. But what people on the outside don’t see is the pressure he puts on himself to try to achieve perfection.Most of the time, football is about negativity and fear. But with Pep, it’s about extreme positivity.
This season has not been easy for me. The injuries and the matches that I’ve missed have been extremely difficult for me, mentally. Sitting and watching a match from the stands is basically worse than torture for me. I can’t cope.
Actually, my wife says that there’s something wrong with me. We’ve been together almost seven years, and she had never seen me cry. Even at funerals, I don’t cry. But then earlier this season, I injured my knee against Fulham, and there was some ligament damage. The doctors told me that I was going to have to be in a brace for a bit. This is always a nightmare, when you can’t even put on your underwear without help. But this was really terrible timing, because my wife had just given birth to our second son the day before.
Actually, she had just arrived home from the hospital when I called her on FaceTime to tell her the news.
I said, “How’s the baby? How’s everything?”
She said, “Everything is fine. Are you crying?”
I had a little tear in my eye, I guess.
I said, “Well, I have some bad news. It’s my knee again. I’m going to be in a brace for a while. So I guess you’re going to have to take care of three babies now.”
And then, literally, I broke down in tears. I couldn’t help it. I don’t know if it was the emotion of our son being born, or knowing that I was going to miss some more matches, or maybe both. But I’m on FaceTime, on that stupid front-facing camera, looking ridiculous, just sobbing.
My wife couldn’t believe it.
She was like, “You didn’t even cry at our wedding! You didn’t even cry when your sons were born! One was born literally YESTERDAY!”
I think that says it all, really.
Weddings, funerals, births? It’s nothing. I’m a rock.
But if you take football away from me? Forget it. I can’t cope.
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
In the end, this project at City is about more than winning. It’s about a certain way of playing and an overall philosophy. This is why we get up every morning, why we obsess over so much detail in our work, why we try to push ourselves to the limits.
To play simple football is actually the hardest thing in the world. But when it’s rolling? For me, it’s the most joy that I can have in life.
So whether or not we achieve the impossible, this wave we’ve been on — it should be appreciated by anyone who truly loves football, I think. When we play our best at City, when we’re fluid it’s like … what’s the word for it? You know, when you meditate?
It’s really like nirvana for me.
And I guess I’m a bit of a different kind of person, in that way, expressing myself mostly through football. But that’s my story.
Thanks for letting me tell it.
Thanks for letting me talk.