Bukayo Saka: The chosen one of London

Bukayo Saka (22) has, in recent years, emerged as one of the shining lights to emerge from Arsenal’s youth academy and arguably one of the Premier League’s very best players.

Playing off the right-wing and cutting inside onto his left foot, the youngster has become an efficient goals and assist machine, amassing 16 goals and 13 assists in 37 appearances in all competitions this season as Arsenal once again find themselves in a position of challenging for the Premier League, with a crunch clash against serial champions Manchester City at Etihad Stadium to come this Sunday, March 31st (Kick off 4:30PM GMT). 

Speaking exclusively to L’Équipe this week, Saka knows he is in the form of his life, but is also acutely aware that there is more to come, his reserved and introverted personality unable to mask his burning ambition: 

“The more you grow, the more certain things motivate you. Making my debut with Arsenal, playing in the Champions League, being called up for England.. now, there are other ambitions. I always had this determination to succeed. If you don’t believe in yourself, you create problems for yourself. Of course I had my issues, the usual ones you face in life, but I always try, and still do try to eliminate fear from my mind.”

An immensely popular figure with Arsenal and England fans alike, many of the autograph-hunting and selfie-seeking supporters on a matchday are there awaiting his arrival, something that is not lost on the timid starlet: 

“I know what it’s like to be in their place. I can see myself in them. At their age, I was the same. Now, I want to be the hero of the new generation”. 

Growing up watching Arsenal in the first two decades of the new millennium, Saka’s heroes are a mixture of the usual suspects (Henry, Bergkamp), but less successful players that showed him the path from the academy to the first team: “Chuba Akpom, Alex Iwobi, Jack Wilshere”. 

Despite his more modest idols, the reference for the Anglo-Nigerian has and always will be Cristiano Ronaldo: “Everything starts with a dream, and this was mine”. 

Unlike many other young prodigies, Saka was always well supported and pushed by his parents. It was his hard-working, Nigerian-born parents who made sure that he valued his education and schoolwork as much as his football career, culminating in the intelligent, grounded Bukayo securing four A* and 3 A grade A levels amid a backdrop of a very heavily loaded schedule of school and training: 

” I’ve always believed I was blessed with certain capabilities, I’ve always thought I was clever. Everything went so fast. Breakfast in one minute flat, then I had to go to school, after which my dad picked me up with a snack and drove me to the academy. I always had a little nap in the car and then I was at training. After training, it took an hour to get home. It was a late finish for a child.”

Grounded by a humble, tight-knit family that arrived in London in the mid 90s from Nigeria, Saka’s maturity is something that strikes everyone he meets, not least the coaches that had the pleasure of watching him blossom in Arsenal’s youth teams. 

“His parents are very balanced. They made sure that nothing interrupted his education. His father trusted us totally, and vice versa. He was an adorable boy, always happy. He was the only boy I told that he would become a pro, he was only eight years old”. 

Arsenal’s former director of youth development Mark Ridgeway’s assessment of the talented Saka is shared by Ryan Garry, Saka’s coach at U13 and U23 level: 

“He’s a young man that was well-raised. A hard worker, he matured very early. I have never had to question his effort or his punctuality. He’s easy to be around, very independent.”

As he has matured further, the winger has also realised that he has a voice in an Arsenal dressing room that is not sure of leaders: 

“Leadership is shared at Arsenal, everyone has a role to play. I try my best, I’m here to score and make a difference, everyone leads in their way. I don’t think I need to change too much in terms of my personality, but I am in the process of realising that my voice counts and that I can always do more.”

Despite a largely upward trajectory through the academy and into the first team, Saka has also had to endure some difficult moments, not least in the aftermath of his penalty miss for England in the Euro 2020 final shootout against Italy at Wembley.

Whilst an angry and upset reaction was to be expected, nothing could have prepared him for the racial abuse he would have to endure, as well as threats towards his family. In typical Saka style however, the winger used it as fuel to bounce back and become even more decisive for club and country: 

“I immediately knew what kind of hate I was going to receive, but that never stopped me from taking back control, try to make a difference, go towards goal. It drives me crazy to lose matches, so I just go for it. At the end of my career, I want to be remembered as someone who has won things.”

With Arsenal facing Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League and locked in a three-way title race with Liverpool and Manchester City, it might not be long before Bukayo Saka adds to his currently trophy haul of a solitary FA Cup in 2020. 

GFFN | Jack McArdle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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