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Bukayo Saka’s is not an England redemption story. He had nothing to redeem


Bukayo Saka’s is not an England redemption story. He had nothing to redeem

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“Palmer, Bellingham, Saka, Toney, Trent. Pressure… What pressure? Pressure is for tyres. It’s a different generation. They don’t feel it. How confident were they? They had the belief. They somehow found the energy to get themselves into the semi-final.” 

England’s victory over Switzerland at the weekend brought with it one of the year’s great moments of commentary.

In a quarter-final that was often difficult and dour, Alan Shearer, the former England and Newcastle United striker now in his role as co-commentator for the UK’s BBC TV, made sure to give special thanks to all five penalty-takers for bringing a moment of joy.

A footballing roadblock that had halted so many tournament runs in the past was overcome. There is a science to modern penalty shootouts to help remove so much of the nerves and chaos of the past, but still old worries remain.

England’s players were confident during this one in Dusseldorf, meaning the country, whether fans in the stadium or those watching back home and around the world, took care of being worried for them.

Fear over England when a tie goes to penalties is a common occurrence. What is less common are some of the reasons why.

All five of England’s penalty-takers against Switzerland are of Afro-Caribbean descent (Cole Palmer’s grandfather is from Saint Kitts and Nevis). While these five players showed no visible worry over taking their spot kicks, Black England fans watching around the world felt knots in their stomachs. A miss from any of these players could send England out of the tournament and, as recent history suggests, invite a torrent of racial abuse. 

Bukayo Saka’s penalty brought with it extra tension. Three years ago, he, along with Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, were the subjects of racial abuse following their missed penalties in the European Championship final defeat by Italy at Wembley. In the Premier League season that followed, rival Premier League fans chanted that the Arsenal forward had “let your country down”.

But against Switzerland, it was Saka’s excellent strike in the 80th minute that earned England the opportunity to take the game to extra time and then penalties. Yet, when the 22-year-old walked up to take England’s third penalty, there was a fear that if he didn’t score then those toxic behaviours of 2021 would be repeated.

A penalty that was presented as a chance to exorcise demons carried with it the threat of renewed mockery and hatred. The fear that many Black England fans felt watching the penalty has been best exemplified in a short video of the shootout that went viral over the weekend. 

The clip shows a man watching the game while bent over on his knees, praying that God protects the winger and that the spot kick is converted. It’s the sort of prayer familiar to many who grew up in a West African home and attended church on a Sunday. As the camera cuts to Saka starting his run-up, the man makes a small sign of the cross over the ball and asks Saka to score “in the name of Jesus“. When the penalty is converted, the man exhales a quiet amen.

When Trent Alexander-Arnold scored England’s fifth and final penalty, Saka could be seen falling to his knees and giving up a prayer of thanks. Soon after, messages of congratulations flooded in for Saka. Sancho was quick to post a message on social media, saying, “I’m so proud of this guy! You did it for me and Marcus, brother!”.

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Saka falls to his knees after England’s victory (Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)

“You can fail once but you have a choice whether you put yourself in that position again or not, and I’m a guy that is going to put myself in that position,” Saka said later. “It’s something I embrace. I believed in myself and when I saw the ball hit the net, I was a very happy man.

“I wasn’t focusing on the past — that’s done. I can only focus on now. Of course, I know there’s a lot of nervous people watching, my family included in the crowd, but I kept my cool and scored.”

It would be easy to paint Saka’s story as one of redemption — but it is worth remembering that there was nothing for him to redeem.

He performed no action that July night at Wembley worthy of the racist and toxic comments he encountered afterwards. Saka was brilliant at 19 when he played for England, and he is even more so now, at 22. The love and respect that he and the four other penalty-takers against the Swiss received should not be conditional upon winning.  

Former England international Rio Ferdinand, who is Black, asked, “Where are the racists now?”, on X when celebrating Saturday’s penalty-takers, but there remains a fear that some of football’s most toxic elements are still there, lurking. Ready to pounce after any defeat or mistake, wanting to revoke the personhood of any of the Black players to make an easy scapegoat.

Watching England as a non-white person can come with the fear that with many of the national team’s historic defeats comes a fall guy. Saka and England’s other penalty-takers in Dusseldorf successfully blocked out any fear of failure to deliver five moments of footballing brilliance for all England fans. 

In the aftermath of the match, another video went viral on social media. It shows cricket fans in the concourses of Edgbaston stadium in Birmingham during an India vs Pakistan T20 game being played there, putting aside their sporting differences to watch a shootout in which five players of Afro-Carribean descent scored for England. It is incredible for so many people of different heritages worldwide to pause and watch and root for this forever nebulous, forever changing, forever shifting country that is England.

On Saturday, the bravery of Saka, Palmer, Bellingham, Toney, and Alexander-Arnold in an England shirt served as a reminder that the shirt is available to all who want to claim it.

Or, to borrow another famous quote to sit alongside Shearer’s: “Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without courage you cannot practice any other virtue consistently”. 

(Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

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