'It means a lot,' says Saka as fans serenade him

LONDON • Bukayo Saka's penalty miss in the shootout defeat by Italy in July's Euro 2020 final produced collective groans and some diabolical racist abuse.

But his return to Wembley, the scene of despair two months ago, ended with a beaming smile and rapturous applause from the English fans on Sunday.

England's 4-0 victory over tiny Andorra in their World Cup Group I qualifier was a largely forgettable affair for the sizeable crowd enjoying some late summer sunshine.

Jesse Lingard's double, his first international goals for three years, grabbed the headlines as Gareth Southgate made 11 changes to the side that beat Hungary 4-0 in midweek.

But the biggest cheers from a laid-back crowd that spent part of the evening making and throwing paper aeroplanes, were for Saka, who headed in England's fourth goal - a fine way for the Arsenal forward to mark his 20th birthday.

Captain Harry Kane converted from the spot for the hosts' third strike of the day.

Saka's spot-kick miss at the end of a tense final against Italy was a traumatic moment for any player, let alone one so young.

Trolls polluted social media channels with racist abuse aimed at him and England's other black players who fluffed their penalties, including Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford.

But from the moment Saka was given an ovation by the Wembley crowd before kick-off, it was clear that this would be a far more pleasant experience.

His goal produced the biggest roar of the night and he was serenaded at full-time as he handed his shirt to a young fan in the stands.

"It means a lot, it really made a difference for me," Saka said. "It means everything to me and shows that everyone supports me through thick and thin."

His manager Southgate was just as pleased with the "fabulous reception". "It was lovely, you can see how popular he is with the team as well," he said.

"I hope (it offers) closure if it was needed but I don't think there is a player in that dressing room who thinks anything but positively about what he did all summer."

England's win maintained their 100 per cent start to Group I of which they are now commanding leaders with a 100 per cent record after five games.

Lowly Andorra, whose entire population could easily fit into Wembley with room to spare, spent the entire evening with 11 men behind the ball.

However, they could not keep out a makeshift Three Lions side that had Trent Alexander-Arnold, a right-back by trade, start in the middle of the park, while Southgate handed Leeds striker Patrick Bamford his international debut.

The former Middlesbrough manager saved his big guns for tomorrow's far tougher test in Poland.

A win in Warsaw will give his men an eight-point lead at the top of the group and almost seal automatic qualification to Qatar 2022 with just four more games left after that.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2021, with the headline ''It means a lot,' says Saka as fans serenade him'. Subscribe