Euro 2020 could not have ended worse for Bukayo Saka.
The Arsenal starlet followed Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho in missing a penalty in the final shootout, and then woke up to thousands of derogatory comments on his social media accounts targeting him because of the colour of his skin.
It’s a horrible way for this tournament to end, and the severity of the situation means this will likely be Saka’s defining memory of Euro 2020, and that’s a travesty. He played 271 minutes this summer but will remember just one of those.
This is a player who, up until he missed his penalty, was widely heralded as one of England’s stars of the tournament – a status he still holds for any fans smart enough to realise penalties are a lottery and racially abusing someone for a miss is barbarian.
Flash back to his first appearance, a start against the Czech Republic in the final group stage, and you’ll be reminded of just how impactful Saka was for England this summer.
Having sat on the bench and watched England stagnate their way to a 0-0 draw with Scotland that could have easily been much worse, Saka was the man to whom Gareth Southgate turned to get things back on track. Saka, a 19-year-old at his first tournament, had done enough in training to prove to the boss that he was the right man to save the team.
Saka did exactly what was asked of him. He was outstanding against the Czechs, proving to be an absolute menace down the right wing. Jan Boril, the Slavia Prague defender he had tormented in the Europa League a few months earlier, will still be having nightmares.
Because he was so impressive, he earned a start in the last 16 against Germany. It was the biggest game of his career to date and he was given the unenviable task of helping to neutralise Atalanta wing-back Robin Gosens who, up until that point, was many neutrals’ player of the tournament in his position.
Predictably, Saka was brilliant.
He combined a defensive unselfishness with an attacking determination that made him the whole package. The teenager’s fearless approach at both ends of the field was stunning, and it led to some lofty praise from Alan Shearer.
“England need more players like that. He’s been so brave, when someone’s marking him tightly he still wants the ball,” Shearer told the BBC (via football.london). “I think he’s been our best player.”
Such was Saka’s impact that there was a genuine disappointment when it was revealed that he was injured for the quarter-final against Ukraine. Fortunately, Jadon Sancho stepped up in his absence and a spot in the semi-final was secured for the Three Lions.
He shook off his injury for the Denmark game and was inspirational in dragging England level. It was his cross which Simon Kjaer converted into his own net and gave the Three Lions the platform they needed to go on and dominate the game.
It was tough to see Saka dropped for the final, and even tougher to see how the game ended for him. This is a 19-year-old who, literally and figuratively, stepped up for his country when they needed him most. He gambled and came up short. It happens.
To Saka, that penalty miss will have ruined his tournament, but as Arsenal stressed in response to the abuse, he should have his head held high for what he achieved this summer with England. He was an integral part of a tournament run which will go down as one of the greatest in recent Three Lions history and cannot let one kick of a ball define him.
Euro 2020 was an overwhelming success for Saka. That’s the only way we should be looking at it.