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Soccer, like all sports, can see plenty of tribalism. As an Arsenal supporter, for example, I think Bukayo Saka is pretty special. If you ask someone who wears a differently colored shirt each weekend, though, they might tell you the young winger is overrated, underperforming, and goes down too easily. The World Cup, however, provides a chance to set some of those differences aside.

On Monday, England kicked off their tournament with a comfortable 6-2 win over Iran. Saka not only earned the start but added a high-quality goal in the first half and a second after halftime. Those factors combined to highlight one word in my head: redemption.

If you’re feeling cynical, you might wonder how scoring a (largely) meaningless goal against Iran makes up for missing a penalty kick on one of soccer’s biggest stages. That’s because I’m not focused on the ball finding the back of the net.

Bukayo Saka had an awful end to his Euro 2020 campaign

Being a professional athlete means facing plenty of high-pressure situations. What Bukayo Saka experienced, however, crossed the line.

In the final match of the tournament, England and Italy went to penalty kicks. Saka, who had never stepped up to the spot at the senior level, was tasked with his nation’s fifth and final attempt. It was saved, condemning the Three Lions to defeat.

While that experience could ruin anyone’s career, the Arsenal man faced an additional challenge. He, along with Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, faced an outpouring of racial abuse. For all the positives of sport, they also gave the worst elements of society an excuse to explode.

Again, that could have broken anyone’s spirit. Saka returned to his club, where he was welcomed back by a wall of supportive letters. His response spoke volumes: “How do I say thank you for all this?”

He also continued to perform on the pitch. While Arsenal’s Champions League push ultimately fell short, the winger is a key part of the Gunners’ blossoming core. If everything is going according to plan, he’s one of the first names on Mikel Arteta’s team sheet.

A World Cup start and 2 goals are a fitting note in Saka’s story

Bukayo Saka (L) celebrates scoring a goal during the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Bukayo Saka celebrates a goal during England’s World Cup win over Iran. | Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Flash forward from the summer of 2021 to the winter of 2022. After leaving the pitch with his head in his hands, Bukayo Saka earned a start in England’s first World Cup match. The forward didn’t rest on that achievement, though, as he added two goals in a comfortable win over Iran.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t really care about those goals. You could argue that Saka should be scoring against opposition of Iran’s quality. You might contend that a forward is in the team to score goals, and the Arsenal man was simply doing his job.

Instead, I want to look at the human side of the story.

Saka had one of the worst experiences you could imagine after missing that penalty. Not only did he step into the spotlight, only to fail on a massive stage, but he had to face the abuse that came followed. From a footballing perspective, his confidence could have been destroyed. From a personal perspective, it would have been understandable if he shied away from the spotlight or passed up the next few penalty kicks.

That didn’t happen, though.

Saka has stepped up as Arsenal’s penalty taker, and he’s done a fine job from the spot. He’s become a key cog in the Gunners’ machine, growing into not only the face of the club but one of the faces of the entire Premier League. The forward played his way into the England starting 11 and marked the occasion with two goals.

It’s tough to get any better than that.

When we talk about the joys of sport, part of the appeal is doing (or seeing someone do) what seems to be impossible. Whether that means flying through the air for a slam dunk, uncorking a 500-foot home run, or scoring a beautiful goal, those special moments are what speak to us as fans. But there can also be a more human side of things, where we see the indomitable spirit shine through.

That can mean fighting back against the odds when there’s little to play for besides pride. It can mean coming back from a life-threatening situation to play at the highest level, like Christian Eriksen. Or, in this case, it can mean staring down some pretty universal fears — failure, being set aside as different, and facing outright abuse — and coming back for another go.

That’s what Bukayo Saka did.

Within the scope of the World Cup, the forward’s two goals probably won’t matter. England would have won handily with or without those markers, and based on the way things played out, whoever started had a decent chance of writing their name on the score sheet. From a larger perspective, though, the performance confirms everything I see watching Arsenal week in and week out: Saka is a gifted player and, as best as we can tell from afar, a special character.

He didn’t really need to redeem himself on Monday — anyone can miss a penalty — but he still proved a point.