If Bukayo Saka is waiting for a call from the inspirational figure who helped him find strength in the adversity of last year’s Euro 2020 penalty miss, he might have to accept it will not arrive.
Not because his mentor is neglecting him, but because Thierry Henry’s loyalties will be divided. The Arsenal and France legend has become a confidante of Saka’s ever since he sought out the England attacker in the wake of his shootout agony last summer, when he missed the final kick in the defeat by Italy.
“Thierry was in touch after that,” said Saka. “It showed a lot of character from him to get my number and to reach out to me.
“But it’s not just that moment. After most Arsenal games, he reaches out to me and he is still so passionate and he is an amazing person. One of my biggest regrets – well, not regrets but things I’ve been able to do – is not to meet Arsene Wenger.
“I know how much my dad loves him and how much everyone at the club loves him and I know what he did for the club. Then, there are so many other French players, like Thierry and Robert Pires, who have been around the club and spoken to me and helped me and they have supported me to this day.”
If Henry’s support has helped inspire Saka, it will be a help to England if the match goes to a penalty shootout, with the Arsenal youngster ready to step up to the plate again. He said: “I have matured and progressed a lot as a player and as a person since that moment [at the Euros].
“I would not have stepped up the times I have stepped for Arsenal to take a penalty if I wasn’t confident. So if the moment comes and I am selected to take a penalty, I am more than happy to.”
Saka has had such an impact on Qatar 2022 that he is already being talked about as a possible Young Player of the Tournament, the award won by a certain Kylian Mbappe in 2018.
But when asked if he could be the next Kylian Mbappe, Saka laughed: “First of all, thank you for the compliment, but no. There is only one Kylian Mbappe, and at the same time, there is only one me.
“I just want to be myself and help any team in the best way I can. There are a lot of young players in this tournament – I can name so many. Even in our team, there is another young player alongside me who is doing unbelievably well in Jude Bellingham.
“I’m just happy we are all doing well and the priority is to try and win the tournament rather than be the Player or the Young Player of the Tournament.”
And Saka, like the rest of the squad, genuinely thinks Gareth Southgate’s team can lift the trophy in Lusail Stadium on Sunday week.
He said: “Of course, we have to believe that. We have to come into this tournament and believe that we can win it. We are blessed with such quality in our team, it gives you the confidence to shine.”
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