A worldwide TV audience of 328 million saw Bukayo Saka miss the penalty that cost England the European Championship at Wembley Stadium in July 2021. He was just 19 and had never taken a penalty in a senior match before.
The abuse he received in the aftermath – much of it racist – went on for weeks. It might have broken some teenagers. Or at least derailed their career somewhat. But at the time of writing, Saka has just completed a run of 83 consecutive matches for his club, Arsenal. He has been named their player of the year two seasons running and, last year, was also voted the England’s team’s top player.
When he’s not thrilling crowds on the pitch, he is putting his time and profile to good use: most recently, teaming up with the online freelancer platform Fiverr to help young people get started in business and the creative industries. The England manager, Gareth Southgate, already describes him as one of the world’s elite players. In short, Saka is the embodiment of a thoroughly modern footballer: talented, focused, humble, intelligent, progressively minded but – perhaps most importantly of all – possessed of a cast-iron self-belief.
“For me, it’s all about whose opinion you choose to value,” he says. “Everyone has opinions and social media allows them to express it, you can’t always avoid that. If you choose to value the opinions of random people you’ve never met then you set yourself up to be hurt. I’ve made that mistake in the past, I think everyone has made that mistake at some point. Try to focus on the opinions of people who really matter and are close to you: your friends, your family, your mentors.”
In the Eighties and Nineties, footballers were often characterised as dim-witted party boys. It was a glib stereotype with a kernel of truth. Saka’s Arsenal predecessors Tony Adams and Paul Merson were undone by addictions that seemed to grow alongside their fame. Paul Gascoigne became an England superstar at a similar age to Saka but seemed ill-equipped to deal with the emotional strains of celebrity. Later, in the early 2000s, England’s so-called ‘golden generation’ of footballers (Rooney, Beckham, Ferdinand et al) were the first to benefit from the mega-money of the Premier League but became associated with big egos and bad behaviour.
While it was easy to demonise the individuals, the truth was that these were vulnerable young men being used for their sporting talents by clubs and institutions who often neglected their welfare as human beings. Football has matured a great deal since then and the result is a player like Saka, who was nurtured not just as an athlete but as a person at the Arsenal academy since the age of seven. He says, “I always had my parents guiding me but I was lucky to have some good teachers at my school too. I owe them so much because when you’re a kid you don’t know anything more than what your mentors tell you. And so you have to suck it up and listen to them, which I almost always did. And it helped me a lot.”
He achieved straight A’s at school, mindful of the need to have a plan B outside of Arsenal.
“My ambition was always to play football and that was my main focus from the start, but my parents just made it clear to me that it wasn’t certain to work out and that I needed things to fall back on,” he says. “So I studied hard. I was always interested in learning about business and that was one of the GCSEs I did best in. So my plan would have been to start a business of some kind. I don’t know exactly what.”
This is what attracted him to team up with Fiverr on a new project to support young people who want to get started in business but might not know where to take their ideas.
“I think about myself and my friends at school, we all had good ideas. But would we have all had the opportunities to turn them into real businesses? Maybe not,” he says. “That’s why I’ve got involved in this project with Fiverr to offer young people chances. In terms of diversity in business, I like the idea of seeing the person before the background.”
It’s an attitude that’s echoed by Big Issue Recruit, our specialist recruitment service, dedicated to supporting people who face barriers to joining the workforce into sustainable employment. It’s a person-centred service and free to candidates pre-, during and post-employment in building skills, confidence and resilience.
Last year, Saka teamed up with the charity Big Shoe to fund 120 life-changing operations for children in Nigeria, the homeland of his parents, although Saka himself was born in Ealing, West London on 5 September 2001, and was raised in the area.
He represents a very modern type of diversity – a strongly patriotic England player who feels simultaneously connected to his ancestral roots.
The spine of Southgate’s England is of either African or West Indian descent: from Kyle Walker to Jude Bellingham, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Saka. With the strong backing of their white teammates, they drove the team’s persistent taking of the knee in support of Black Lives Matter throughout last year’s World Cup.
There are more second-generation African-Englishmen coming through the national team system too. Chelsea’s Carney Chukwuemeka and Trevoh Chalobah have both played at Under-21 level. These players are challenging the dated idea of nationality as binary; there are thousands of Black football fans who are able to passionately cheer on the England team while also identifying with the country their parents grew up in.
It’s the sort of relaxed fluidity that must confuse and anger the dying breed of football fans who still boo when England take the knee.
Southgate has been eloquent and determined in backing the progressive attitudes of his players. So what is it that makes Saka and his contemporaries so politically and socially conscious?
“I think it’s mostly to do with social media,” he says. “We’re all on it and it helps us stay informed. And so we all talk to each other about the issues we see on there. And then we sometimes choose to use our profile to get involved in certain things and try to make a difference. People say social media is all negative but there are different ways you can use it.”
In 2021, social media might have ended Saka’s career when it had only just begun. When he missed that fateful penalty at Wembley he said at the time he “knew instantly the kind of hate” he would receive when he switched on his phone, adding “… and that is a sad reality that your powerful platforms are not doing enough to stop these messages.” Two years later, he is crediting social media for its educational impact. But he is always mindful too of its toxic potential.
“It’s hard to filter out the bad stuff sometimes because it can just pop up anywhere,” he says. “But I try not to look for other people’s opinions about me because that’s a dangerous road to go down. I’m aware that it won’t all be good! You have to realise that not everyone on social media has good intentions and you have to be ready for that.”
It used to be a rarity to find a professional footballer with any good intentions beyond scoring goals and buying cars. Saka shows us how much the game has changed.
Find out more about Saka’s project with Fiverr here
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