There was no angst and no hostility; a few murmuring boos as Andorra stood for their national anthem aside. It was Wembley on a good day as England returned to the scene of one of the saddest and most painful nights in their history.
The final of Euro 2020 was supposed to be a joyous occasion; the crescendo to the summer we all needed after the year-and-a-half from hell. It turned out to be dangerous, aggressive and, in the end, disgustingly discriminatory.
By now everyone knows the story and UEFA are due to set their punishments and unveil the full extent of the damage done on that night of chaos and carnage. Gareth Southgate has suggested there are fears of a stadium ban.
Thankfully, Sunday night saw no repeat and a complete contrast. Perhaps this was best summed up by Bukayo Saka’s Wembley reception when he scored at the same end where he missed from the spot in the shootout defeat to Italy. It was a moment which, according to Southgate, brought closure. Saka had been racially abused in the aftermath, but had also been given wide-ranging support on subsequent Arsenal appearances, including at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in a pre-season friendly.
But on his first Wembley return some nine weeks after his heartache, the reaction as his header rippled the net felt different; on his 20th birthday, no less.
“It was the perfect birthday present for me,” Saka told ITV. “I am really happy with the reception everyone gave me. It really shows how proud they are of me and I think that meant a lot for me and it made me want to give my all.
“It really made a difference. Even now, I can hear so many fans chanting my name. It means everything. It makes me believe that everyone supports me through different things. This is what I dreamed about. Playing at Wembley in front of a full crowd and my family, scoring on my 20th birthday. I am really happy.”
It was so uplifting; such a positive way to change the narrative after such a hard-hitting low. The media loves a good storyline, though, and in a routine victory which further cemented England’s control of World Cup qualification, where nothing out of the ordinary happened, Saka naturally became the centre of attention. But the framing of the talking point which proved unnecessarily provocative and certainly unhelpful.
Rather than focussing on the support received, the fact Saka had been able to perform so well so soon and, like he has almost everything else in his career, take it in his stride, the narrative, and line of questioning he was faced with, focused on his ‘redemption’.
While perhaps appearing as a positive at face value, the implication is certainly not. Saka had done something wrong and needed to make up for it. Effectively, what he was being asked was whether he felt relieved that he could finally let go of a difficult issue, when in reality, the burden of missing the penalty and horror that followed, has been lifted off his shoulders for weeks.
There was no Wembley redemption because Saka did not fail and he certainly did not let anybody down. Framing the story like this makes Saka look guilty, which is both wholly untrue and detrimental to his recovery from something that became personally traumatic and needlessly so.
Nobody would disagree with the sentiment that Saka had already done what was needed by showing the courage and conviction to take that Wembley penalty in the first place. But the very idea of redemption suggests that simply isn’t true. It makes it appear as if Saka scoring that goal has allowed the country to forget the image of Gianluigi Donnarumma blocking his kick and for him to finally repay some sort of debt.
If Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, needed guidance to navigate the emotions of such a painful episode, then they have the perfect manager. Southgate has been through it all before; it was he who missed the crucial kick against Germany in the semi finals of Euro ’96 and saw it instantly define his playing career. Only when he was manager was he allowed to move on, not because of his own demons, but because the narrative dictated as such.
Depending on personal preference, his redemption, and therefore the ‘repaying of his debt’, came either against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup, when he oversaw a shootout victory, or when Germany were dispatched over the summer.
But the criticism Southgate received for poking fun at his own disappointment in a very cheesy (pardon the pun) pizza advert summed up the dark undertones to the idea of a redemption arc. Having failed and cost England a place in the final, he was condemned to accept the need to ‘redeem’ himself but the moment he tried to make light of it, he got accused of kicking his country while it was down.
Saka’s Wembley goal was a brilliant moment, showing once again how loved he is as one of England’s best young footballers and also how well thought of he is having shown off his infectious personality away from the pitch.
As doubtful as it is that many people honestly believe he owes his teammates, the fans and the press anything, framing the goodwill and general positive outcome as a redemption arc feeds into that narrative. Penalty misses are part of football and the fact he took one and has been able to regain his focus so effortlessly needs to be the focus of the story, rather than a backhanded compliment which fuels the fire of all the negativity that became so problematic in the first place.
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