England rallies around Sterling amid tattoo controversy

LONDON — England's players and management are rallying around Raheem Sterling to ensure the tattoo controversy surrounding the forward doesn't affect his mindset heading into the World Cup.

Sterling came under scrutiny this week when he posted a picture of himself in an England training session with a tattoo of an assault rifle clearly visible on his right calf. He said it was a tribute to his late father, who was shot dead when Sterling was 2.

Anti-gun campaigners have criticized Sterling, while The Sun — England's biggest-selling newspaper — has carried the story on its front page.

England coach Gareth Southgate attempted to ease the focus on 23-year-old Sterling, who is set to be one of the country's key players at the World Cup after enjoying the best season of his career at Premier League champion Manchester City.

"He knows he's got our support, he understands how some people have perceived the tattoo," Southgate said Friday. "But in my view, a tattoo is like any work of art. It's a very individual meaning, the intent is all with the individual and the person.

"What has been clear by his own statement and his own experiences is that he is not someone who supports or wants to promote guns in the way that was perceived at first. It's something he's had to get on with this week, but he's a very strong individual and he's looking forward to the game."

England midfielder Jesse Lingard, who plays for City rival Manchester United, said he and others have "reassured" Sterling this week because "that's what friends are for."

"This England team is a tight-knit group, we stick together through the ups and downs, the negatives and the positives," Lingard said. "But at this point in time it's all about positives vibes from our side and we're looking at the World Cup as a big test for us."

The English Football Association has already offered its support for Sterling, who could play for England in a World Cup warm-up match against Nigeria at Wembley on Saturday.

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