After England beat Germany at the Euro 2020 football championships this week, The Sun newspaper’s front page blared: “55 years of hurt never stopped us Raheeming”.

The awkward headline invoked the lyrics of football anthem Three Lions to sum up a momentous result: a first England victory against their old enemy in a tournament knockout match since 1966. And the win was inspired, in large part, by the opening goalscorer Raheem Sterling.

“We knew we needed to put a big performance in against a very good German side and I thought we done that today,” the 26-year-old Manchester City forward told the BBC. “Scoring for your country is always special and it’s definitely a special moment for me.”

The Sun’s cheerleading, however, also signals how the England team’s success can bring together people otherwise divided in a culture war that rages across both the game and wider country.

It was also the UK tabloid that ran a front-page headline, shortly after England’s humiliating defeat to Iceland at the 2016 Euros, that described Sterling as “Obscene Raheem”. His apparent offence was “showing off [a] blinging house” that he had purchased for his mother.

Since then, the player has become pivotal to England’s steady rise. Sterling has scored 15 goals in his past 20 national team appearances, including three at this tournament so far that have propelled the side towards a quarter final against Ukraine in Rome on Saturday.

“I’ve known Raheem for a long time,” said England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford who first played alongside Sterling when they were teenagers. “His career has been outstanding. He’s the same lad he was when he was 16. He’s great to have around the place. He’s vocal. He’s a leader on the pitch.”

Sterling has also made an outsized impact off it too. In 2018, he began to speak out about how depictions of multi-millionaire footballers differ wildly based on their skin colour. He took to Instagram to describe how white teammates receive comparatively glowing coverage for acts of generosity towards their families.

“For all the newspapers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all I have to say is, have a second thought about fair publicity an[d] give all players an equal chance,” he wrote in a post liked by almost 640,000 people.

The message triggered a widespread debate on media portrayals of black success. Coverage of Sterling, in particular, has become noticeably more positive since. It was a targeted display of how player power can change a prevailing narrative. His work promoting racial equality in sport was rewarded with an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours last month.

Yet, Sterling’s views on social matters, shared by an increasingly vocal England team, have also proved divisive. He has been among the black players who have reported a significant increase in racial abuse on social media and even at matches.

To highlight the issue, England have chosen to “take the knee” before games, which the team have said is a “mechanism of peacefully protesting against discrimination, injustice and inequality”.

Some fans have booed the act. Rightwing politicians have attacked the players for making the protest, linking it to the Black Lives Matter movement. Home secretary Priti Patel has derided it as “gesture politics”.

“Everyone’s entitled to their opinions,” said Tyrone Mings, a black England player. “The home secretary is one of many, many people who oppose us taking the knee or refuse to defend it . . . we [have tried] to educate and inform the minority who refuse to acknowledge why we take the knee and want to boo it.”

As the tournament has progressed, those jeers have been increasingly drowned out by applause, reflecting a growing majority that appear to want to back the team.

The victory over Germany has also lifted the pandemic-depressed national mood. The match achieved peak domestic television audience of 20.6m people during its closing stages, when late goals from Sterling and captain Harry Kane secured a 2-0 victory.

And as former England striker turned TV presenter Gary Lineker wrote on Twitter, that figure almost certainly underestimates how many people actually watched the game. “3.6 million on iPlayer [the online service] and BBC website, and lordy knows how many at pubs,” he wrote.

The figures compare well against the most watched television events in UK history, a list that largely reflects the country’s collective obsessions; big sporting events, royal weddings and funerals, and momentous episodes of the soap operas Eastenders and Coronation Street.

“To know that so many millions of people, after such a difficult year at home, can have that enjoyment that I know we’d have given them today, is very special,” said England manager Gareth Southgate.

England now have their best hope at winning a major tournament in decades. A favourable draw means they cannot face a higher-ranked opponent until the final. Even that last match would be played at Wembley in front of what is likely to be a partisan home crowd united behind the team.

Should England get that far, it would also cap a remarkable rise for Sterling. Having grown up in poverty on a council estate in the shadow of Wembley — he has a tattoo of a boy looking up at the stadium’s arch inked on his arm — Sterling has gained wealth, fame and an influential public voice. Talent has earned him a shot at greater glories.

“I always said that if I ever play at Wembley in a major tournament, I’m going to score,” said Sterling earlier in the competition. “It’s my back garden.”