Sterling’s dream now a reality as England beats Croatia 1-0

England's Raheem Sterling celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group D match between England and Croatia at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, June 13, 2021. (Glyn Kirk/Pool Photo via AP)
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LONDON (AP) — Raheem Sterling grew up in the shadow of Wembley Stadium as it was being rebuilt, even getting a tattoo of its famous arch on his left forearm.

Now playing for his country at the iconic venue, he used his right foot to give England the start it had been longing for at the European Championship.

The winger’s goal — his first in a tournament in his 13th match through four competitions — gave England a 1-0 win over Croatia on Sunday in its opening Euro 2020 game.

“I always said to myself if I come here, growing up two minutes down the road, I’ve got to score,” Sterling said. “It’s a great feeling doing it.”

It ensured England overcome its opening-game stumbling block, finally making a winning start to the continental tournament in its 10th appearance.

Far more comfortable than in the loss to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semifinals, this was an England side packed with youthful debutants.

Seventeen-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham, who plays in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, became the youngest-ever player to appear at a European Championship when he came on in the 82nd minute to replace captain Harry Kane. The previous record had been held by Jetro Willems, who was 18 when he played for the Netherlands at Euro 2012.

Sterling, still only 26, is now England’s most experienced tournament player and entrusted by coach Gareth Southgate despite struggling for game time at Manchester City in recent months.

“He’s been a reliable performer for us,” Southgate said. “I know people are saying he hasn’t hit the heights but we can’t have all the burden of scoring on Harry’s shoulder. We need the players in the wide areas. He looked a threat the whole day.”

After only scoring once in his previous 13 appearances for City and England, he found the breakthrough against Croatia in the 57th minute. It was the vision of Kalvin Phillips, one of five England starters making their tournament debut, that created the opening.

“He brings a lot of energy to the team,” Sterling said. “He’s always in the faces of the opposition and uses the ball well.”

The Leeds midfielder shook of challenges before releasing Sterling, who slipped a shot into the net via a touch off Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livaković.

The sparkling moment for Sterling came two days after he was named in the queen’s birthday honors list for his campaigning against racial injustice.

But at the first England game at Wembley with fans since 2019, there was a sour start when players taking a knee were jeered by their own fans. That was despite pleas from the England team to respect the anti-racism gesture.

There was a more unified atmosphere among the pandemic-restricted crowd of about 20,000 at the end when “Football’s coming home” was sung from the team’s “Three Lions” anthem while being applauded by the players.

The England players, who next face Scotland on Friday in Group D at Wembley, couldn’t wait to shield from the heat of around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) on a rare sweltering day in England.

“It’s not conditions we’re used to and we dug in as a team,” Sterling said. “It’s been a long season for me. I couldn’t wait to get started with England and I knew it would be a positive one.”

There was a brief anxious moment in the second half after Kane collided with the post as he stretched to meet Mason Mount’s cross. Notably — unlike on Saturday when Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed in a game — the UEFA television coverage quickly cut to wide pictures of Wembley with no close-ups before Kane resumed playing.

“It’s not easy coming to major tournaments and starting the way we did,” Kane said.

While England gained its elusive win, containing Luka Modric in particular to restrict the midfielder’s involvement, Croatia’s five-game unbeaten run at the start of European Championships ended.

“In attack we didn’t show much quality, but we were playing against England, who are a terrific team,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić said. “We were their equal most of the time. This is encouraging to me and it will be better in the forthcoming matches.”

Next up is a meeting with the Czech Republic at Hampden Park in Glasgow.

“It is not a disaster,” Croatia defender Šime Vrsaljko said. “We had some good spells but England were better. We gave our best. We won’t surrender our chances now. I am certain that things will look different over the course of the next two matches.”