In the native Yoruba language of his parents, Bukayo means “adds to happiness”. It really sounded like a premonition, especially for England fans, as 21-year-old winger Bukayo Saka is definitely one of the best players in Gareth Southgate’s side and is surely the one with the biggest upside.
Brought in to the spotlight by Arsenal, the team he has been playing for since 2008, when he was only seven years old, Saka has morphed from an interesting proposition to a certainty, despite having to navigate a difficult moment in his career and his life when he missed a decisive penalty in the UEFA EURO 2020 final, while still a teenager.
But Saka is resilient, built on the strength of his parents and has now thrived at Qatar 2022, being England’s joint top scorer in this FIFA World Cup edition, with three goals, and not a star in the making anymore, rather than a true star on and off the pitch.
The latest England’s star was born in London to Nigerian parents, who moved to England to improve their quality of life. Both Adenike and Yomi also liked football and were Arsenal fans, therefore it was only apt that the young Bukayo was jettisoned to Arsenal’s youth squad since he was only seven years old.
A fast and creative winger, with a dazzling dribble and a huge football IQ, Saka burned some stages of his development and was signed as an Arsenal player at the age of 17 years old, making his debut in the first side in a game against Ukrainian team Vorskla Poltava in November 2018.
His ascension to greatness was immediate, as he started to get better and better, dubbed a “coach’s dream”, by the current Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta. His excellent demeanor on and off the pitch earned his rave reviews, with Saka never flashing his wealth or making arrogant comments in the media, being well-liked by opposing fans, despite becoming Arsenal’s captain.
He was quickly named a “Next Generation Leader” by “Time” magazine and the pressure only grew, until Saka was also called up to the England national team. Despite calls from Nigeria to play for the African side, Saka chose England and never looked back.
And it was England’s national team that brought him the toughest challenge of his career. The “Three Lions” qualified for the UEFA EURO 2020 final in July 2021, with Saka a member of the squad.
With a chance to seal the first international trophy since the 1966 FIFA World Cup, England went on penalties against Italy, and Saka was designated to be a taker, despite having scored only once in his professional career from the spot.
He missed and England lost the trophy, with Saka, still a teenager, left in tears on Wembley’s turf. It could have broken the young player, but it did not. And he received a huge outpour of support, even from Arsenal’s rivals.
At one of the first matches after the UEFA EURO 2020 final, Arsenal made the trip across London to face their die-hard rivals, Tottenham. Saka had every reason to fear that the reception will be tough.
Yet something happened, something that he definitely did not expect. The whole stadium gave him a standing ovation, cheering for the young Lion who missed a decisive penalty, instead of placing the blame on him.
“The fact that Tottenham’s fans are willing to do that for me shows that some things are bigger than football,” said the England winger.
That penalty miss really hurt England, but it made Saka stronger. A devout Christian, he reads from the Bible every night before going to sleep. He is still that same modest guy, not flashing his talent and boasting huge respect for everybody.
“I will not let that moment or the negativity I have received this week break me,” said Saka after that miss, and, indeed, he did not.
He bounced back in superb fashion and is a key player for Arsenal, who spend Christmas on first place in the Premier League for the first time in a decade.
And at Qatar 2022, Saka delivered on the biggest of stages, scoring a brace against the Islamic Republic of Iran and an important goal for his morale against Senegal, in England’s 3-0 win in the Round of 16.
He is now one of the top scorers of the competition and definitely one of the best Under-21 players in his first-ever edition of the FIFA World Cup he plays in. And, for the umpteenth time, his surname really confirms the story: Bukayo really adds to the happiness of England’s squad at Qatar 2022.