Monday, 26 Jul 2021

Bukayo Saka: The A* student who has ‘never been afraid to stand up and be counted’

There were emotional scenes after England’s loss in the Euro 2020 final as a tearful Bukayo Saka was consoled on the pitch by manager Gareth Southgate.

The teenager, who had just missed the decisive penalty in the shootout with Italy, wasn’t even born when Southgate suffered similar heartache as a player at Euro 96.

As the dust settles following England’s defeat in their first major final in 55 years, questions have been asked about the lasting impact on Saka, who was subjected to horrific racial abuse on social media in the wake of the game.

But those who have known the 19-year-old since he was a young boy believe he has the “resilience and strength” to overcome his penalty disappointment.

Greenford High School in Ealing, west London, where Saka achieved four A*s and three As in his GCSEs, posted a message on social media after his shoot-out miss, which read: “This will not define you Bukayo.”

Assistant headteacher Mark Harvey told Sky News: “Bukayo represented the nation superbly throughout the tournament. He played with a fearless confidence that students at school have found admirable.

“Bukayo is a role model to any aspiring sportsperson as he has a superb work ethic and his character has shone throughout.”

He added: “I’m confident that Bukayo has the resilience and strength in his character to overcome the disappointment that he must be feeling.

“As a school, we’re immensely proud of Bukayo and the England team.”

Some pundits have questioned why teenager Saka – a relative newcomer to the England team – took the side’s fifth penalty, after Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho had missed, when established players such as Raheem Sterling were yet to take a spot-kick.

Saka had never taken one for the England or Arsenal first teams, having been a regular starter for the north London club for the past two seasons.

But Saka’s former youth coach wasn’t surprised to see the player step up to take a penalty.

“He’s certainly never been afraid to stand up and be counted and take one,” former England under-18s coach Neil Dewsnip told Sky News.

“That wasn’t a surprise to me to see him walking forward to take one.

“How will he react to it? He’s a very confident person. He’s not outspoken or too outgoing in his nature but he’s very confident in his inner self.

“To achieve the heights that he has already achieved by 19 years of age in our national sport takes some doing. Without that inner self-confidence it would be almost impossible to do that.”

Dewsnip has now urged England fans to remind themselves that Saka is “a massive success story” for the national team – and he believes the player may need to hear that from supporters.

“Bukayo has made a massive positive impact on this tournament… we shouldn’t forget that,” he added.

“We should all be very proud of him. He might need to hear that from all of us.”

After Sunday’s final at Wembley, Saka’s England teammates were quick to rally around the player who has emerged as a popular member of the squad at Euro 2020.

During the tournament, defender Luke Shaw said he enjoyed Saka’s company so much he “would love him to be my brother” – or even his child.

“Honestly, I love him,” Shaw said.

“I would just love it if he was my child or something, I love him like that and you could ask anyone in the squad and they would say how nice a guy he honestly is.

“I didn’t know him before I came to the camp and I didn’t know what he would be like but I have got on so well with him, I would love him to be my brother.

“He is so cool, so funny and he makes everyone laugh and he doesn’t mean it.

“He is not a loud person it is just the way he is, the way he speaks.”

After Saka’s penalty miss, Shaw said he would give the “devastated” player “a big hug”.

“I think the most important thing is for us now as a team to be there for him and give him a big hug and tell him to keep his head up,” the England left-back said.

Meanwhile, Southgate hailed Saka as one of the best players of Euro 2020 as he faced reporters’ questions on Monday.

“Bukayo in particular has been an absolute star in this tournament – incredible maturity the way he’s played,” the England manager said.

“He’s a brought a smile to so many people’s faces, he’s become such a hugely popular member of the group.

“I know he’s got everybody’s support.”

Saka made history for England at Euro 2020 as he became one of only three teenagers to start a knockout fixture for the Three Lions, following in the footsteps of Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen.

He is also the youngest Englishman to start a match at the semi-final stage of a major tournament

It could have been a very different story as Saka had the option to play for another national team.

His parents are of Nigerian descent – meaning he could have chosen to represent the African nation instead of England.

Saka’s father has always been a massive football fan and supported Newcastle because of his love for Alan Shearer.

But it was Arsenal that Saka went to watch during his childhood – and he would sign for the club at just seven years old.

After making his first team debut for Arsenal in 2018, he was named the club’s player of the season in 2020-21.

Saka’s older brother Yomi also grew up as an aspiring footballer and played as a defender for Watford until he was about 14.

Discussing his childhood, Saka said that once school was over he would have something to eat and then go straight out to the garden to play football with his dad and Yomi.

The three of them would play for hours – and when his dad and brother wanted to go back inside, he wouldn’t let them.

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Saka did not play in England’s opening fixtures at Euro 2020 against Croatia and Scotland but made his debut in the tournament in the final group game against the Czech Republic.

He justified his inclusion after barely 10 minutes when he instigated England’s winning goal with a quick-footed break through midfield.

Saka was England’s go-to man to make things happen in the Three Lions’ knockout fixture against Germany before he was taken off 20 minutes before the end of the match.

He didn’t play in England’s emphatic quarter-final win over Ukraine after suffering a knock in training, but Southgate didn’t hesitate to bring him back for the semi-final clash against Denmark.

And he made a huge impact in England’s 2-1 victory in that game as Denmark captain Simon Kjaer scored an own goal following a dangerous cross by Saka.

As one of England’s most promising young players, fans will be hoping Saka can overcome his penalty disappointment to star at the World Cup in Qatar just 16 months away.

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