Tormenta’s Kazaiah Sterling: From Champions League to the Open CupFind out how England-born Kazaiah Sterling went from a Champions League debut with Spurs to Statesboro, Georgia and a date in the Open Cup with David Beckham’s Inter Miami.
It wasn’t long ago that Kazaiah Sterling was one of the most promising young attacking prospects at Tottenham Hotspur, training with some of the world’s best and making a Champions League cameo while still in his teens.
So how did it come to pass that the one-time England youth striker, now 23, ended up in South Georgia with third-division Tormenta and poised to take on David Beckham and Gary Neville’s Inter Miami of Major League Soccer as heavy underdogs in the U.S. Open Cup’s Round of 32?
Read on for a comprehensive look back – and ahead.
TOE IN THE BIG LEAGUE
“I was one of the youngest on the bench, so I wasn't sure if I was going to come on,” former Tottenham striker Kazaiah Sterling remembered from his new home in Statesboro, Georgia. “But I was just really excited and optimistic, just hoping that if I did come on, that I'd be ready.”
In 2017, Sterling made history for Spurs by becoming the club’s youngest player to ever make a Champions League debut. Then just 19, he came on as an 88th-minute substitute for Dele Alli in a 3-0 win against Cypriots APOEL FC at Wembley.
Mauricio Pochettino, his manager at the time, wanted to give Sterling a solid run at the end of the game. “But the ball literally didn't go out,” said the striker.
Sterling waited on the sidelines for a full eight minutes. “All that time the nerves were building up,” he admitted to usopencup.com. “I've been playing football my whole life and I've never seen anyone have to stand on the side that long. I just felt a bit awkward.”
Even the television commentators on the call that day labeled it a “lifetime” to wait.
“You see all the fans, all the players –– players you've looked up to –– you're now playing with them,” Sterling said of the moment, when it finally came. “It's overwhelming.”
But Sterling never lost his focus or his confidence.
“Normally when you get subbed in, they give you loads of instructions,” he said. But when Dele Alli embraced Sterling on his way off the pitch, he had only four words to say. “‘Have fun, enjoy it,’” Sterling remembered.
It was the realization of a dream for the teen. But before Sterling ever dared dream of playing for Tottenham or making his Champions League debut, he was just a kid from nearby Enfield, England, tearing up his mom's garden.
“I used to use my fence as a goal and literally just destroy it,” Sterling remembered. “I’ve broken a few windows in my time as well.”
Sterling didn’t start playing competitively until he was eight years old. He was scouted in primary school by his P.E. teacher who also worked for local side Leyton Orient, a professional club in East London with a track record of identifying promising youngsters.
By the time he reached secondary school, scouts from Tottenham were taking notice of his abilities – his link-up play with midfielders and incisive movement off the ball.
The Open Cup is coming to #DRVPNKStadium! #InterMiamiCF will be hosting South Georgia Tormenta FC in the first-ever @opencup match at DRV PNK Stadium! The final date, kickoff time and ticketing information will be announced at a later time: https://t.co/XZ1InzESVr pic.twitter.com/AV17lJZzjO— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) April 21, 2022
Sterling was only 12 at the time and it was hard for him to say goodbye to his friends at Leyton. But Tottenham’s training ground was only 20 minutes from his house and the competitor in him, eager to make his mark, won out.
“I feel like in football you have to grow up quite quickly in terms of being a man,” Sterling said. “You got to be mature.
“And when you're that young, you don't always think too much about all the other stuff,” he said, referring to his new environment at one of Europe’s top clubs, with stars like Gareth Bale and Robbie Keane passing by the halls of the clubhouse. “You enjoy the scenery, but once you’re playing football, that's what you're really thinking about.”
“Everyone knows you're an academy player and it’s kind of highlighted,” Sterling said of the experience of training with the first team. “There's these extra eyes on you.”
“I think when you first go up, you tend to be quite safe,” he continued. “I think that's probably one of the biggest mistakes a young player going up could make. You’ve got to remember, there’s certain attributes that you have that are why you’ve been called up, and I feel like a lot of players shy away from showing them.”
“It’s a really important thing for young players…finding ways to be confident within yourself,” insisted Sterling.
In 2015 he received a call-up to the youth national team and represented England at the U-17 World Cup in Chile alongside current Liverpool and senior England star Trent Alexander-Arnold. He also played for the U-18s later that year. In total, he had nine caps for England’s youth national teams and scored three times.
As a kid, he was inspired by national team players like Raheem Sterling, who broke through at a very young age. “When I was really young,” Sterling paused to laugh about the player with whom he shares a surname, “I said, ‘Yeah, that's my cousin.’”
“Finally getting that call-up and being part of that group,” Sterling said. “That just made me feel really proud.”
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
After his Champions League debut, Sterling practiced with Tottenham’s first team on a regular basis. He was always on high alert during warm-ups, especially when Pochettino joined the rondo.
“He was quite good at them,” Sterling said of the training exercise that favors those with touch and vision. “But you just know if he's giving you a pass and is a bit short, you just go in.”
Sterling joked that he never got nutmegged by Pochettino, but that he did see it happen to a few of his teammates. The team even had a rule about it. “If you get nutmegged three times, you have to sing at lunch,” Sterling laughed. “So I just made sure that wasn't happening.”
Singing in front of the team was also used as a friendly initiation for first team players. It usually went down at the end of the season or at team dinners. “They tap a spoon on a cup, you just hear that noise,” Sterling said. “Everyone starts cheering and you just know, like, times up.
“I had to stand up on a chair,” he continued. “I just remember my leg was trembling. That's probably the most nervous I've ever been doing anything.”
When he was 20, many expected Sterling to be loaned out to another team to get more in-game experience. However, Pochettino kept him with Tottenham so that he could train under Harry Kane. “I asked him [Kane] what [he’s] thinking, where [he’s] finishing,” Sterling said. “And [he] just explained little things like what [he] looks to do.”
COMING TO AMERICA
After five seasons out on unpromising loans, Sterling finally left Tottenham. In March of 2022, he made a clean break by signing with Tormenta an ocean away. It was a completely new experience for the 23-year-old forward.
Sterling said movies and music –– his favorite rapper is Future –– have helped him adjust to life in Georgia, but he’s still getting used to seeing things like “school buses” and “mailboxes.”
“Like in England, I can't imagine just having a mailbox and putting stuff in there because people would just go in and take it,” Sterling said.
“Kazaiah is a well-rounded forward with good movement in behind, an ability to link play, and aggression against the ball," said Tormenta boss Ian Cameron. “There's no doubt his education at Tottenham Hotspur has been formative in his development.”
Tormenta, tied for first in USL League One, have gone on a commanding run in the 2022 Open Cup. They won their Second and Third Round games against USL Championship opponents Charleston Battery (1-0) and Birmingham Legion (2-0), respectively. Both big upsets on paper.
“Those teams in the league above…we didn't really see it as that,” Sterling said. “We just saw them as another opposition that we believed we could beat.”
Tormenta now face a huge Cup test against a top-tier team which, given all his past experience, won’t have young Sterling too rattled. “We're ready for that game,” said the player ahead of a date with Inter Miami -- a steel in his voice born of new challenges and fresh confidence.
Niko Emack is a reporter for usopencup.com. Follow him on Twitter @Niko_E_B. Darius Boamah studies journalism at Emerson College. Follow him @Dariusb_123 on Instagram.