England: In Their Own Words
To read the full 2018 article, “It Was All a Dream,” click here.
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 and 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.
Not everybody believed. I had a teacher when I was 14, and to be fair I was probably messing about, not really listening. So she said, “Raheem! What’s wrong with you? Do you think football is going to be your end goal? Do you know how many millions of kids want to be footballers?”
And I thought, O.K., fair enough, I’ve heard those odds before.
But then she said, “What makes you so special?”
And that line really stuck with me.
In my head, I literally went, “Ehhhh? What makes me so special? O.K.! We’ll see.”
Two months later, I got called up to the England U-16s, and I set up two goals against Northern Ireland. It was all on the television and everything. That was a big moment for me. I went back to school on Monday, and all of a sudden that teacher was my best friend in the world.
Funny how that works.
But the real turning point came when I was 15. Liverpool wanted me, but it was three hours away from home. And I’ll never forget sitting my mum down and telling her that I wanted to go. I love all my friends from my neighborhood. They’re still my best friends in the world. But at that time, there was a lot of crime and stabbings going on, and I felt like Liverpool was a chance for me to go away and just focus on football.
In my head, I was like, O.K., this is it. My mum sacrificed her life to get me here. My sister sacrificed her life to get me here. I’m here. Let’s go.
My mum, though, she would still be calling me every morning. “Raheem! Did you say your prayers today? Have you given thanks for waking up today?”
I’m like, “Mum! Yes, I have Mum!”
That was probably the most important time of my life. My whole mission was to get a proper contract so that my mother and sister didn’t have to stress anymore. The day that I bought my mum a house, that was probably the happiest I’ve ever been.
I can remember when I was a kid, there was like three or four times when I was on the bus home from training and my mum would text me a new address.
And she would say, “This is where we’re living now.”
There was a two-year period where we were moving all the time, because we couldn’t afford the rent. At the time, I barely thought about it. It was just normal to me. But now I understand what it must have been like for her, going through that struggle.
You know … it’s sad that I even have to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway. There’s a perception in certain parts of the media that I love “bling.” I love diamonds. I love to show off. I really don’t understand where that comes from. Especially when I bought my mum a house, it was unbelievable what some people were writing. I think it’s really sad that people do that. They hate what they don’t even know.
A few years ago, I would let it get to me. I’d be saying to my mum, “Why are they picking on me?”
But now, as long as my mum and my sister and my kids don’t have any stress, I’m good.
If people want to write about my mum’s bathroom in her house, all I have to tell you is that 15 years ago, we were cleaning toilets in Stonebridge and getting breakfast out of the vending machine. If anybody deserves to be happy, it’s my mum. She came to this country with nothing and put herself through school cleaning bathrooms and changing bed sheets, and now she’s the director of a nursing home.
And her son plays for England.
You know what’s so mind-blowing to me? I got called up for England at 17. The first time I ever got to play at Wembley was in a World Cup qualifier against Ukraine, and the most surreal part was sitting in the bus on the way to the stadium, just looking out the window as we’re driving down Harrow Road, thinking to myself….
That’s the house where my friend used to live.
That’s the parking lot where we used to roller skate.
That’s the corner where we used to try to talk to girls.
That’s the green where I used to dream that all of this was gonna happen.
If you grew up the same way I grew up, don’t listen to what certain tabloids want to tell you. They just want to steal your joy. They just want to pull you down.
I’m telling you right now….
England is still a place where a naughty boy who comes from nothing can live his dream.