Arsenal quick to rally around Bukayo Saka as club chiefs and players support England star as he deals with penalty miss and abuse

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 (PA)
(PA)

The joyful pictures of Bukayo Saka leaping into a swimming pool on an inflatable unicorn felt like an age ago on Sunday night.

Those images of the Arsenal teenager and his England team-mates playing about during a Euro 2020 rest day went viral on social media.

The 19-year-old had every right to be happy, too, having come from the fringes of the squad to become its breakout star and a symbol of the bright future of this England team.

So, perhaps that is why Sunday’s pictures of Saka sobbing at Wembley after missing the decisive penalty against Italy, and being embraced by England manager Gareth Southgate, cut so deep.

The challenge now for Saka is how he responds to that traumatic moment and the racist abuse that followed.

Saka is on holiday for three weeks, but his club have been swift to offer him their full support.

Director Josh Kroenke, son of owner Stan, chief executive Vinai Venkatesham and manager Mikel Arteta have all made contact with him. They are not alone, with many others at the club quick to send messages to the forward.

Saka is an immensely popular figure at Arsenal and Venkatesham contacted club staff yesterday to assure them the youngster, like every player at the club, would be looked after following the abuse he has suffered.

The academy staff know Saka particularly well, given he has been with the club since the age of seven, and academy boss Per Mertesacker has contacted him, as have others who have known him for years.

Arsenal have a strong stance against all forms of racism and abuse, and in March set up a new taskforce to combat it.

Its aim is to give emotional and practical support to players — and situations like Saka’s now is exactly why it was created. The taskforce has strong links with the UK Police, international networks supported by the Premier League, football’s equality and inclusion organisation Kick It Out and social media platforms to ensure action can be taken against hate-crime perpetrators. The taskforce has been used in the past when the likes of Granit Xhaka and Willian have been targeted.

Any Arsenal member found to be responsible for unacceptable online abuse will be banned and the club will support further legal action in appropriate cases.

Arsenal are now working with the FA and the authorities to track down those responsible for abusing Saka on Sunday night.

It is clear Arsenal have acted swiftly to support Saka, but the role of his team-mates will also be key when he returns to training come August.

His England colleagues have already rallied round him, and a video of Kalvin Phillips rushing towards him after he missed the final penalty went viral. Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell, who became good friends with Saka during the Euro finals, was quick to comfort him, too.

Such is Saka’s popularity at Arsenal that he is not part of a tight friendship group at the club. He is genuinely liked by everyone in the squad.

The role of their senior players will be key now, though, and club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has a great affection for Saka, giving him his nickname ‘Little Chilli’ and gifting him a chain with a jewel-encrusted chilli on it bearing his name. Alexandre Lacazette is another at Arsenal renowned for helping youngsters, with Emile Smith Rowe one of those particularly grateful for his mentorship.

Several members of the Arsenal squad have sent Saka messages, either publicly via social media or privately, while fans have rallied together, too.

The supporters are the final element of Saka’s reintegration, and they are likely to play a crucial role in the coming season, when stadiums are full again.

In spite of his youth, Saka spent last season basically carrying this Arsenal team in empty stadiums, but now he will get to learn how he loved he is by Gunners fans - and at a time when he needs support more than ever.

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