Soccer  

‘Impeccable’ Saka stronger for World Cup

Aaron Ramsdale said Bukayo Saka is stronger for his Euro 2020 heartache and he handled the fallout “impeccably” for both Arsenal and England.

The 21-year-old was one of three players — along with Manchester United duo Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho — to suffer online racist abuse after missing penalties as England lost the final in a shootout to Italy at Wembley last summer.

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Saka had never previously taken a spot-kick but is now Arsenal’s designated taker, scoring all four penalties since, including in big matches against Chelsea, United and Liverpool.

Arsenal narrowly missed out on a top-four finish last season but Saka has been a key player this term as Mikel Arteta’s side headed into the domestic break five points clear at the top of the Premier League.

And asked by ESPN how Saka had dealt with the last 18 months, Ramsdale said: “[I’m] trying to find the right words… impeccably, probably.

“The kid’s a lovely boy, he has time for everyone, works super hard throughout every week. Very, very rarely misses a training session and used all that motivation of criticism but also more so the love that everyone gave him, gave him an extra boost.

“Don’t forget he had the pressure of the whole football club on him last year — him and Emile Smith Rowe were our main guys — and he has dealt with that, he’s dealt with everything else. He is thriving and I can’t wait to see him thrive over here.”

Ramsdale was relegated in successive seasons with Sheffield United and Bournemouth and pushed on how Ramsdale helped support Saka, the Arsenal goalkeeper said: “More through the criticism side. That was probably the first time he received it.

“I got relegated and signing for Arsenal was a difficult period so I was able to talk him through that and also when we missed out on the top four he felt like it was all his fault because he couldn’t provide for us and I was just able to reflect that the season before they finished eighth, this season we finished fifth, and if we go another step again we will be in the top four. It’s that perspective of: it’s a game of football and there’s a lot more to it.

“Absolutely, [he is a stronger character]. There is no doubt about that, off the pitch and on it. He’s a more complete person.”

Meanwhile, Ramsdale vowed England will try to compensate for the sudden ban on alcohol in stadiums by delivering a similar thrill through their performances.

FIFA confirmed on Friday that beer will not be served at matches despite the Qatar Supreme Committee previously stating fans could purchase alcohol, restricting sales instead to other fan sites and hotels in Doha.

“I think the fans will find some way of having a beer,” Ramsdale said. “I don’t think you need to do it so much at the game. Hopefully with them not being able to drink, we can perform on the pitch to give them that sort of excitement and buzz.

“But we also have to respect the rules and continue to work. We’ll put pressure on ourselves to entertain from the football pitch.”