England 2-1 Nigeria

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Sterling is a very strong character – Southgate
England v Nigeria coverage details
Date: Saturday, 2 June Kick-off: 17:15 BST Venue: Wembley
Listen to live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live and online

England manager Gareth Southgate says Raheem Sterling is a “great example” to young children and knows he has support following controversy over a tattoo.

Sterling, 23, has defended his choice to have a tattoo of a gun on his leg.

The body art is a tribute to his late father and Southgate stressed tattoos hold an “individual meaning”.

England 2-1 Nigeria
England 2-1 Nigeria

“He knows what it means to him and he’s comfortable he has done nothing wrong,” said Southgate as England prepare for Saturday’s Nigeria friendly.

“He has always been a resilient boy from when I worked with him in the under-21s, to even younger than that,” Southgate told BBC Radio 5 live.

“He is tough and I have no doubts that he can more than cope and thrive in the environment we are going into.”

The Football Association has publicly backed Sterling – part of England’s 23-man World Cup squad – after the Manchester City forward faced criticism from anti-gun campaigners.

He quickly stated on social media that his father “was gunned down”, adding: “I would never touch a gun in my life.”

Southgate added: “I’ve had a good, deep conversation with him to see how he was with everything.

“He knows he has our support. He understands how some people perceived the tattoo. In my view a tattoo is like any work of art – it’s a very individual meaning.”

Sterling could feature in friendlies against Nigeria on Saturday and Costa Rica on Thursday.

‘Raheem embodies spirit’

Raheem Sterling's tattoo of a gun has drawn criticism from anti-gun campaigners
Raheem Sterling’s tattoo of a gun has drawn criticism from anti-gun campaigners

Southgate revealed his squad will also have an “internal game” before flying to Russia for the World Cup and said incidents like the controversy surrounding Sterling will “only become a distraction if we allow them to”.

The former Middlesbrough manager said the England set-up has no need to “police” tattoos and that Sterling and some of his team-mates could be viewed as inspirations.

“The personal story of a lot of our players is quite remarkable,” Southgate added.

“People highlight the issues and faults of all of the squad but for so many of them it’s incredible that they have got to the point they have.

“They are a great example to young kids of what you can achieve with your life if you are dedicated and focused. Of course they have talent, but there is so much more that is needed to become a professional and a top one.

“Raheem embodies that. Nothing is given to you in life and you have to fight all the way.”

Lingard set to start

Southgate confirmed Manchester United forward Jesse Lingard will start against Nigeria, who are in a group with Argentina, Croatia and Iceland.

Lingard, 25, scored 13 times for United this season, but will face competition from Sterling, Dele Alli and club-mate Marcus Rashford to start in England’s opening World Cup game against Tunisia on Monday, 18 June.

“All of our attacking players have different attributes or strength,” Southgate said.

“Jesse is a fantastic player at recognising the space, working away from the ball – a great link between midfield and attack.”

United defender Phil Jones missed Friday’s training session to be at the birth of his daughter and will not be involved in Saturday’s game.

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