Few young players have hit soccer stardom as quickly and emphatically as the Nigerian / British youngster Bukayo Saka. His biggest moments came during the final stages of the Euro championships when having helped England to reach their first major final since 1966, he stepped up to take the dreaded win or lose penalty… Profile by Michael Renouf.
For football fans who only take an interest during major international tournaments, the delayed Euros would have been the first time many had heard of Bukayo Saka, but for those that follow the game with a keener eye, his rise to prominence was an expected one. This April’s edition of the football magazine FourFourTwo named him the second-best player in the Premier League aged 21 or under.
Born on 5 September 2001 in Ealing, London to Nigerian parents, he would become the first player born in the 21st century to play in the Premier League when as a 17-year-old, Unai Emery sent him on as a substitute in the 83rd minute in a 4-1 Arsenal victory against Fulham on New Year’s Day 2019.
However, Saka had played his first senior game for the Gunners (Arsenal) in the Europa League against Ukraine’s Vorskla Poltava on 29 November 2018 and in a game of ‘making appearances against teams you have never heard of’, made his full debut in his side’s next outing in the competition against Azerbaijan’s Qarabag FK. He ended the season as an unused substitute when Arsenal went down 4-1 to fellow Londoners Chelsea in the Europa League final.
The following season (2019/20) though, saw Bukayo establish himself as a first-team regular, initially under Emery and then Arsenal old boy Mikel Arteta, who replaced Emery halfway through the season. He struck his first-ever goal for the club while the Turkish Europa League specialist Emery, who has won the competition a record four times as a manager, was still in charge, in that very competition, a fine long-range effort against Eintracht Frankfurt.
It was for the Spaniard, Arteta that he would score his first league goal in an away 2-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers.
At the end of the season, he picked up his first winners’ medal as the Gunners faced Chelsea in another final, this time the FA Cup. Although Saka again spent the entire game on the bench, he had made a significant contribution in getting his side to Wembley, starting three of his team’s six games in the competition. He also finished as the club’s second most prolific assist-maker in the league with five in 26 appearances, one behind Nicolas Pépé.
This was the season he made his breakthrough with the England’s men’s senior side, when Gareth Southgate selected him to start in a 3-0 victory over neighbouring Wales. He had previously played for England at every level from Under-16 to Under-21.
The opening game of the 2020/21 season saw him named as a starter against Liverpool in the Community Shield and he produced the assist for the game’s opening goal for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The London side won the trophy via a penalty shoot-out, but by then the youngster had been substituted.
This season he became more prolific in front of goal, netting seven times for his club in 46 appearances in all competitions, including his first in front of the adoring home fans at the Emirates in a 2-1 victory over Sheffield United – well, it would have been in front of the Arsenal faithful if not for the pandemic that forced football in the country to be played behind closed doors.
Those absent fans bestowed on him the club’s Player of the Season award, putting him in stellar company. Thierry Henry, Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Aubameyang are just some of the players to have been handed this title before him.
During the campaign he showed off his versatility, playing on both the left and right of attack and even occasionally at left-back – which was the position he made his debut in.
In February 2021, he played his fifth match for his country and opened his scoring account for them when netting the only goal of the game in a friendly against Austria.
The successful season with his club led to him being named as part of England’s squad for the European Championship. The delay had helped him, as he had not made his international debut at the time of the original 2020 scheduled dates of the tournament.
It was England’s third game of the competition when Southgate first turned to Saka, naming him as a starter against the Czech Republic, and he vindicated his manager’s decision, winning the Man of the Match award in a 1-0 victory. He kept his place for the win against Germany but due to injury, missed the only game England played on foreign soil during the tournament, the 4-0 humbling of Ukraine.
He was back for the semi-final and it was his cross that saw Simon Kjaer bundle the ball into his own net, with Raheem Sterling lurking menacingly behind Denmark’s captain, which brought England level in their 2-1 victory.
A defining foul?
Sunday 11 July saw England contest their first international final since 1966, when they had won the World Cup for the first and so far, only time. This was not only before any of the squad were born, but also boss Southgate, as well as much of the expectant audience – around 31m people in the UK.
Southgate, who had not been afraid to make changes to his starting line-up or formation during the tournament, placed Saka on the bench as he named five defenders in his side. After a lightning start from England and a 67th-minute equaliser for the Italians, Bukayo was England’s first change three minutes later.
At the end of the 90 minutes, six minutes’ injury time were added and in the last of these, Saka, wide on England’s right, had got goal-side of Giorgio Chiellini, who hauled him back as you might an errant toddler.
This foul – in part – has led to a petition being started in England to replay the game, and although the youngster would have had a run at the opponent’s goal, there were still two covering defenders and his nearest support, England captain Harry Kane, was a good seven or eight yards behind him. Would he have become England’s hero? We will never know, thanks to this most cynical of fouls – a moment one Italian fan has had immortalised in a tattoo.
So extra-time came and went with no more goals, meaning a penalty shoot-out was needed. England netted their first two to take the advantage, then Rashford hit the post, before Sancho saw his effort saved. Saka went up to take England’s fifth spot-kick, a 19-year-old in only his ninth game for his country, with the burden of a nation’s 55-year wait pressing on his shoulders. He knew he had to score, or the trophy was lost.
He sent his shot to the left of the keeper, who guessed correctly and turned his shot away. Saka would join the likes of Chris Waddle, David Batty and his manager, whose failed penalties meant the end of the line for England in a major tournament.
Unlike them, he had a curse put on him, called a ‘Kiricocho’, by his old pal Chiellini, as he stepped up to the spot. Also, unlike them, he has already played in a final for his country and still has many years to bury the ghost, possibly next year in Qatar at the World Cup.
Now that would be a story.