The idea of Saka having to ‘redeem’ a missed penalty in the Euro 2020 final is ridiculous, but to see him so successful at the World Cup is heartwarming
It’s a grim old world. Football is no longer a way out of the moral maze or culture clashes, but a mirror of it. It marches hand in hand with the ramifications of geopolitics, authoritarianism, and human rights. And an interview with Piers Morgan introduced the news agenda briefly to the only marginally less appetizing World Cup.
So you console yourself where you can and mine are pictures of Bukayo Saka’s face when he’s full of joy. There’s something incredulous about Saka’s smile during those magical moments after the goal, as if he’s just woken up after being transported into the glorious final scene of his own dream sequence.
After becoming the youngest England player to score more than once in an England World Cup game, the majority seemed to say Saka deserved his redemption. I’ll take the point: his last shot in a major tournament was a missed penalty and that meant England fell a step short. Then Saka didn’t smile; Now he lights up the stadium.
It was certainly a significant personal milestone; we all agree on that. After the game, Saka admitted the Italy penalty will stay with him forever but has only made him even more determined to use history to write his own future. One where he dances around defenders and with England team-mates jumping on his back, presumably squeezing the air out of him.
But that wasn’t salvation because Saka didn’t need salvation. He missed a penalty for England – it happens. He also had the courage to stand up and take on the big responsibility at 19 in the biggest match of his career. His reward for that bravery was receiving unforgivable, vile racial abuse on social media from anonymous cowards threatened by his excellence and cloaked in hatred.
Redemption suggests that Saka changed those jerks’ minds – probably not. This behavior is ingrained and it is often permanent. Redemption indicates that he owed them something, as if he were indebted to anyone. Redemption suggests we can now accept the idea of Saka as a starter for England because he corrected a mistake. None of this is accurate.
If Monday provided any justification at all, it was only for Saka himself. Incidents, even if they don’t deserve a censure, can eat up any player.
Stuart Pearce waited six years for his personal redemption and responded as if those grievances were still outstanding. What Saka went through must have affected him – how could it not? He proved to himself that his excellence will always triumph.
They suspect that Saka could have done all this on her own. He is remarkably mature at 21, both as a person and as a footballer. You have to remember that in this England squad there is only one player younger because 10 have fewer caps. There’s a cheerfulness – and even a mischievousness – about him that belies the effort it takes to not just reach the top as a teenager, but to stay there. England internationals can drift off the stage quickly – Saka was replaced by Ainsley Maitland-Niles on his debut in October 2020 – but he has struggled to keep his place.
But Saka didn’t have to go alone. That’s important in detail, because maybe it wasn’t always like that. There are now tangible support networks for players that may have just been sandblasted in the past. Saka has spoken at length about the love and support he’s had throughout the game.
“I had a couple of long chats with him earlier in the season,” said Gareth Southgate. “He’s also had great support from Mikel [Arteta] and everyone at Arsenal, I think they sensed that from us too. Last year he was England’s Footballer of the Year so I think the most important thing he felt was the warmth of the fans. I was at Brentford on the opening day of last season where it was really heartwarming to see the response he received. That would have helped put things in perspective.”
Now the only perspective Saka needs is a look at his short- and long-term future. He has the world at his feet, is loved by his audience and has the power to move a team forward.
People make mistakes, we’re told, and maybe they made saka, too. There are few more impressive figures in this roster.