Bukayo Saka’s England career has certainly been an eventful ride so far.
At just over 21 years of age, the winger is the second youngest member of England’s World Cup squad, but with 20 caps already to his name, he has quickly become one of Gareth Southgate’s main men.
Ealing-born Bukayo’s very first taste of international football came as he was making a name for himself at our Hale End Academy. He represented the Three Lions at youth level while still a schoolboy, and moved through the age groups steadily – all the way to the under-21s.
But less than a month after making his debut at that level, he was ready to step up to the senior side. And so, just over two years ago, he made his full England debut in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Wales at Wembley.
“Putting the shirt on was a very special moment”
There’s no doubt his form demanded it at the time. Bukayo, then just 19, had made a flying start to the season, playing in the Community Shield win over Liverpool at the end of August, before scoring only the second Premier League goal of his career just a few days before that England fixture, at home to Sheffield United.
He was one of four debutants in the England team on October 8, 2020 (along with Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Harvey Barnes and Reece James), starting the game at left wing-back. England cruised to a 3-0 win, Bukayo was replaced late on by Arsenal team-mate Ainsley Maitland-Niles after looking impressive in the second half especially.
“Putting the shirt on was a very special moment,” a clearly proud Bukayo said after the final whistle. “When I put it on before the game I was really happy and I remembered all the times I wore it for the youth teams. But this one was different and so special for me to play at Wembley.
“Obviously there were no fans there but with all those high-quality players in the team, it was a special moment for me.
“The game was quite different to what I’m used to, the intensity was high but I felt like I grew into it and grew in confidence as the game went on, and I could have got a goal in the second half but I’m happy with my performance.
“I enjoyed it and thought I was getting involved more towards the end, getting more touches and playing more in their half.”
That England bow came just a year after he scored his first senior goal – in our Europa League win away to Eintracht Frankfurt – and he admitted that the speed at which he progressed to become a full international took him by surprise.
“I couldn’t have imagined that you know?” he added. “I still remember that Frankfurt game like it was yesterday. It was a very special night, scoring my first goal for Arsenal was a dream come true, and this is another dream come true playing for England. Hopefully, it’s the first of many.”
Bukayo’s next England appearance came the following month, playing all 90 minutes – again at left wing-back – of the 3-0 friendly win over the Republic of Ireland. The next step on the international ladder was to taste competition football, and that came in the following game, as an early sub in the Nations League defeat away to Belgium. It had been a rapid start to life in the international setup, but there was a temporary halt when injury ruled him out of action for Southgate’s side’s next few matches: three late-season World Cup qualifiers.
"There are so many good things coming my way and I have to thank God for the blessings"
But in June 2021, despite only having four caps to his name, Bukayo was the sole Arsenal representative named in the 26-man England squad for the Covid-delayed 2020 European Championships.
He celebrated his call-up by netting his first England goal, in a 1-0 friendly win over Austria at the Riverside Stadium. In a game in which Ben White made his international debut (before making his move to Arsenal) Saka finished a well-worked team move 10 minutes into the second half for the only goal of the game.
“This is a moment I dreamt of as a kid,” a beaming Bukayo said afterwards. “To score my first goal for my country, I’ve come close to it in previous games, but I’m happy to get the first one and it’s an amazing feeling that I hope I can feel many more times.
“It’s hard to describe these feelings. First of all to be selected for the Euros was amazing and to get my first goal was even better. There are so many good things coming my way and I have to thank God for the blessings.”
Preparation complete, it was onto the Euros. It was a slow-burner at first; Bukayo had to watch England’s opening game, a 1-0 win over Croatia, from the bench and then injury ruled him out of the goalless draw with Scotland in the second group match.
But then he was unleashed. And what an impact he made.
"I’m a local boy, I’ve been past this stadium millions of times!"
Named in the starting XI against the Czech Republic, it was a breakthrough display from Bukayo. In a performance full of attacking intent and trickery, he helped set up the only goal of the game for Raheem Sterling, earning the man-of-the-match award in the process.
Speaking to the media after the game, he said: “It’s really special. I’m a local boy, I’ve been past this stadium millions of times! To have my family and the England fans here in Wembley was really special and a night I will never forget.
“It’s one of the biggest games in my career easily, I had all day to think about it, but I had faith in myself.”
Pundit and Arsenal legend Ian Wright summed up Bukayo’s impact in poetic terms: “He’s burdened with glorious purpose,” was Wrighty’s assessment.
As expected, Bukayo kept his place in the team for the first knockout game, and was excellent once more in a 2-0 win over Germany. After missing the quarter-final win over Ukraine, he returned for the huge clash against Denmark.
On a night of feverish expectation at the national stadium, it was Bukayo’s cross that was turned in by Denmark defender Simon Kjaer for the first-half equaliser, before England went on to book their place in the final with an extra-time triumph.
And so to the final – the country’s first for 55 years. On the eve of the hugely anticipated match against Italy, football magazine FourFourTwo wrote: “Bukayo Saka wasn't even expected to go to Euro 2020 - and now he's an England regular and proof that the DNA of our football culture is slowly changing.
“It’s crept up on all of us. Saka was a dark horse to even get into the England squad: now he's the crown prince of inflatable unicorns. In becoming a starter ahead of Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho, he’s been rewarded for that most un-British thing possible: skipping the queue. And the nation is here for it.”
Bukayo was on the bench for the final, eventually introduced in the 70th minute, shortly after Italy’s equaliser, thereby becoming the youngest Englishman to play in a final at a major tournament. Deep into injury-time it looked as though he had broken beyond the steadfast Italian defence, only to be hauled back by the neck of his shirt by Giorgio Chiellini, who could well have seen red rather than the yellow card that was dished out.
“This became the symbol of Euro 2020 as a whole,” the Italian defender said later. “The most heavily used meme of summer 2021. It was probably one of the only mistakes I made during the Euros.
“It was in the 90th minute and I'd read the flight of the ball, thinking I could shepherd it out of play when really I could have controlled it. But I was convinced I could put my body between Saka and the ball and let it go out of play, but he wriggled round me.
“When he wriggled round from behind and had that space to run into my reaction was to grab him. And I grabbed him good!”
"I was hurting so much and I felt like I’d let you all and my England family down"
There were no further goals, and so the fate of the tournament rested on a penalty shootout. England led 2-1 after two spot kicks each, before Marcus Rashford, then Jadon Sancho both missed to hand the advantage back to Italy. Jorginho had his effort saved, and up stepped Bukayo for his first-ever penalty in senior football, needing to score to take the shoot-out to sudden death. His left-footed shot was saved low down to Gianluigi Donnarumma’s right though, and the hearts of a nation were broken.
Southgate, who himself had missed a vital penalty in a shootout for England at Wembley back in 1996, was quick to console our distraught winger. “He’s not on his own,” the manager said. “He’s such a super boy who’s so popular with the whole group, he’s had an incredible tournament, he’s been an absolute star and will continue to be a star.
“In the final he performed exceptionally well when he came on. We’ve got to be there to support him. I’m sure he’ll get a lot of love for everything he’s done in the tournament, the way he’s established himself and carried himself.”
In the immediate aftermath however, Bukayo was subject to racist abuse on social media, as were Sancho and Rashford. “I knew instantly the type of hate that I was about to receive,” Saka posted on Instagram a few days after the final.
“My reaction post-match said it all, I was hurting so much and I felt like I’d let you all and my England family down, but I can promise you this… I will not let that moment or the negativity that I’ve received this week break me.
'There is no place for racism or hate of any kind in football or in any area of society and the majority of people coming together to call out the people sending these messages, by taking action and reporting these comments to the police and by driving out the hate by being kind to one another, we will win. Love always wins.”
Over the following days and weeks, the Arsenal family responded, with a deluge of supportive letters and messages.
“How do I even say thank you for all of this?” Bukayo said as he was shown the assembled notes of love and support from our fans. The wall is still on display in the concourse at Emirates Stadium incidentally.
"I'm honoured - I can’t put into words how happy I am"
After a short, well-earned break, he returned to pre-season with us shortly before the start of 2021/22, making his first appearance since the Euros final as a sub in our friendly away to Tottenham. The excellent reception he received from the home fans that day (no Arsenal supporters were permitted in the stadium) was a clear indication of the affection in which he was held across the country. It even transcended age-old rivalries.
Meanwhile Bukayo’s career continued on an upward trajectory. He started a World Cup qualifier for the first time ever on his 20th birthday, marking the occasion with a goal and man-of-the-match performance at home to Andorra. In fact he started three of England’s qualifiers in late 2021 - and scored in each of them. He netted home and away against Andorra, then claimed the tenth in a thumping win over San Marino, a 10-0 victory in which Arsenal teammates Aaron Ramsdale and Emile Smith Rowe also featured.
Last summer he was in Nations League action, playing against Germany, Hungary and Italy (twice) and then won his 20th cap in September, coming on in the second half of England’s 3-3 home draw with Germany.
Just a few days before that game, he was named England Player of the Year for 2021/22 – the first Arsenal man to ever win the award since it was launched in 2003. “I did not expect it, I’m honoured,” Bukayo said when he was presented with the award. “I can’t put into words how happy I am, it’s really nice to be awarded the trophy.”
So barely two years since making his senior debut, Bukayo has made a huge impact at international level – but the achievements keep coming.
And now he’s about to sample the unique atmosphere of a World Cup finals for the very first time, and when it comes to tournament football, you sense Bukayo still has a few scores to settle…
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