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'One of the world's best' - Saka's 'special' moment of redemption

Bukayo Saka is Stuart Pearce for the TikTok generation.

Young fans watching England reach a European Championship semi-final via a perfect penalty shootout might not know who Pearce is, but there were more than a few echoes of Euro 96 in Dusseldorf on Saturday night.

England have only scored all their penalties in a major tournament shootout twice – against Spain at Wembley in 1996, and versus Switzerland in 2024.

Against Spain, Pearce slammed home the third spot-kick and celebrated in trademark style with a fist pump and roar, the sinews in his neck straining to breaking point.

Against Switzerland, Saka slotted home the third spot-kick and celebrated in trademark style with a wide and beaming smile, the image of the star boy so loved by the new generation of England supporters.

For both men, shootout success brought redemption.

Pearce scored his penalty six years after missing in the 1990 World Cup semi-final defeat by West Germany. Saka scored his penalty three years after missing in a European Championship final defeat by Italy.

When Trent Alexander-Arnold scored the winning kick, Saka did not rush to celebrate with the bulk of team-mates, but sank to his knees with arms aloft in thanks.

This was redemption, Saka-style - done with class, abundant skill and with irresistible likeability.

"I think for me, it's something I embrace," Saka said of exorcising the demons of Euro 2020. "You can fail once but you have a choice whether you put yourself in that position again and I'm a guy who is going to put myself in that position.

"I believed in myself and when the ball hit the net I was a very happy man."

'It was so brave from Bukayo'

The demons of Euro 2020 had been racist, disgusting and vile. Saka, along with Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, was subjected to the most horrendous abuse after missing in the shootout against the Italians.

Saka, just 19 at the time, took the fifth kick for England and saw Gianluigi Donnarumma save his effort. He was left in tears on the pitch.

Three years later, and the circumstances could not be more contrasting.

Saka - no longer a teenage squad player, but key to England’s hopes - had dragged his team back into the game with a brilliant strike from 18 yards, just five minutes after Breel Embolo put Switzerland ahead.

And, at the end, after the penalty shootout, he was smiling and celebrating with his team-mates on the pitch amid joyous scenes.

"In that shootout, the smile on Saka's face was brilliant," former England defender Izzy Christiansen told BBC Radio 5 Live.

“You can't help but be reminded of the [Euro] 2020 final and it was great to see him put it away.”

Southgate, who held the sobbing Saka tight on the sodden Wembley pitch in 2021, went through his own shootout pain as a player. His was the one kick saved in the Euro 1996 semi-final as Germany edged past England.

"It was so brave from Bukayo - he is one of our best and we were never in question he would take one," Southgate said. "But we all knew what he went through.

“I love them all but I had to give him an extra-big hug. I know myself these experience shape you. He has come back stronger, still resilient and loved. Tonight his tournament ignited a little bit."

It was not just the cool head in the shootout, of course. Saka was the most vibrant attacking outlet for England throughout the match, the high point being his brilliantly taken goal just as it looked like the Three Lions were down and out.

Swiss defender Michel Aebischer will never want to face Saka again. The England winger successfully dribbled past him four times in the first half, more than one player had beaten another in any Euro 2024 match until that point.

'Big players step up in big moments'

Stuart Pearce for England at Euro 96
Bukayo Saka's penalty carried shades of the redemption Stuart Pearce found for England at Euro 96 [Getty Images]

"He is arguably the most important England player because he does something different. He beats players," former England defender Rio Ferdinand told BBC One.

"He is like Arjen Robben. You know he is coming inside but you can't stop him because he is so sharp. He is the one of best wingers in the world.

"Saka has come to England’s rescue again," added ex-England captain Alan Shearer. "Big players step up in big moments."

Saka's stellar showing becomes even more impressive in the context of where he played. Southgate changed formation to a 3-4-2-1, with the Arsenal winger redeployed into a very unfamiliar role at right wing-back.

Saka, who was unhappy to be played as an emergency left-back against Slovakia in the last 16, took to this role with gusto. He provided England with threat and sparkle out wide, beating his markers inside and out - a quality the Three Lions have lacked throughout a Euros campaign that could charitably be described as stodgy at times.

"Unbelievable to play a new position compared to what he's used to," England captain Harry Kane told BBC One when asked about Saka.

"He has been eager to help the team and to play the way he did for 120-minutes - at the end he was knackered."

Tired but beaming, Saka said this was "up there" with the best experiences of his England career.

"Last time we took a penalty shootout at the Euros, we know what happened," he told BBC One.

"I believed. I felt like we dominated the whole game and the chance would come and I took it - I am proud of myself for that."

Like Pearce, Saka has found England redemption in a Euros penalty shootout. But for the fans young and old who idolise him, who know what he had to go through three years ago, there is something extra sweet in the story of this remarkable young man.