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Saka: from kicking balloons around to playing for the national side

Player’s journey through the Arsenal youth ranks to pulling on the shirt bearing three lions

16 July, 2021 — By Richard Osley

Bukayo Saka, pictured as a youth player, quickly reached the first team at Arsenal and was then selected for England

FOR some people, Bukayo Saka may have been a surprise inclusion in the England squad, let alone a player who would play in the final of the European Championships.

By the end of the tournament, even those with only a passing interest in football had taken a shine to the amiable 19-year-old.

His teammates were just the same. In turn, they said how much they loved having him around; the defender Luke Shaw joked he’d like his son to one day be like Saka, naturally funny and supportive of his colleagues.

Maybe it was a bit patronising when people said all they wanted to do was give him a cuddle, but he had won the hearts of the nation with his unassuming approach, a contrast some might say from the glitzy megastars that have walked the path before him.

His rise from the Arsenal youth ranks to pulling on the shirt bearing three lions has been speedy, accelerated by being the Gunners’ player of the season.

Saka on England duty

He had been identified as one of the most promising talents in Arsenal’s Hale End academy, and England manager Gareth Southgate was keeping tabs on his progress from a young age.

He occasionally mentioned Saka in interviews before the teenager had even enjoyed a sustained run in the first team at the Emirates Stadium.

Perhaps his story was best illustrated, however, in a good luck message from his understandably proud parents and brother sent before Sunday’s final with Italy: “This football journey started with kicking balloons in the house at the age of four, then moved to the back garden that almost became your second home…

“It is quite incredible to find you playing a at senior international level with England at such a young age. It is testament to your determination, hard work and dedication.”

He had not been fazed among more experienced international players at the England camp this summer, larklng about with them – and the swimming pool inflatable unicorns – after training.

Southgate had created a squad where nobody cared what club they had come from and an important sense of unity.

For missing one shot, the online bigots have tried to crack that togetherness by attacking a teenager.

They will do well to get past this team’s defence.

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