The walk must have been unending, the weight, unimaginable. Half the length of a football pitch with the entire world watching and the expectations of a forlorn nation at his heel, all at the age of 19. The nerve to even consider shouldering such responsibility is enough to rankle equilibriums and drain complexions to a transluscent, shuddering pallor.
Of course, Bukayo Saka would miss his penalty against Italy at Wembley, and England would not win Euro 2020. In the aftermath, he, alongside Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, would be subjected to an acrid bilge of gutless, cretinous racist abuse, propagated by a senseless minority who you fear may actually speak for more of this fractured country than we care to admit. Whether they do or not, the rank musings of those unfulfilled keyboard crusaders - bellowing into the abyss and beholden to a life of faux indignation, Etonian boot-licking, and the idolisation of a saint who was actually born in Turkey - illustrate a kind of willing hypocrisy in their own logic; Saka and his peers are English when they win, black when they lose.
One thing the precocious winger has always been, however, is a Gunner. Through the hiccups, the heartache, and the harrassment alike, Saka and Arsenal have been inseparable and infatuated. Since his debut in late 2018, he has become a poster boy for the optimism and daring that hallmarks Mikel Arteta’s brave new era. Youthful, exuberant, and fearless, the former Invincibles are beginning to bloom once more, and regardless of whether they are able to sustain their current title charge once the Premier League campaign resumes next month, their newfound vivacity has helped to reestablish them as one of the most dreaded sides in the country.
It might not be this season, it might not even be next, but it is wholly conceivable that the Gunners could usurp Manchester City in the relatively near future. If and when they do, Saka will be there, grinning as he does, humbly and irrefutably commanding the limelight as one of Arsenal’s principal protagonists.
In the Yoruba language, spoken in the region of southern Nigeria from which Saka’s parents emigrated to Ealing, ‘Bukayo’ means ‘adds to happiness’. Nominative determinism can be a wonderful thing. There is something fundamentally joyous about the Arsenal star, from his enterprising dynamism and his ceaseless zeal on the pitch, to his affable demeanour away from it. Rarely has an inflatable unicorn felt like a more fitting mount for a grown man.
And perhaps the most remarkable thing about Saka is that he has endeavoured to thrive and grow in spite of everything. So far this season, across domestic and international competition, he has averaged a goal every other game. At just 21, he is halfway to being inevitable. Others might have crumbled under the burden of last year’s Euro disappointment. By no means would it have been a sign of weakness, but rather a completely justifiable retaliation to the unbearable combined forces of personal dismay and unprovoked racial prejudice. Remember, however bad you might have felt when England lost their first major tournament final since 1966, I can guarantee you that the squad felt worse. Instead, Saka has steadied himself, dusted himself down, and gone again. Stronger, sharper, better than ever.
Speaking in the grim, messy aftermath of that final, Bukayo himself said: “There are no words to tell you how disappointed I was with the result and my penalty. I really believed we would win this for you. I’m sorry that we couldn’t bring it home for you this year, but I promise you that we will give everything we’ve got to make sure this generation knows how it feels to win. 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.” To that end, he has kept his word.
Last Monday, England began their World Cup campaign in Qatar with a superlative 6-2 win over Iran. Saka scored a brace. For a player who has been through so much in his fledgling career, and who still has so much left to give for the Three Lions and Arsenal alike, it felt like a moment of redemption. Not that he ever needed one.