For Bukayo Saka, it started as he bossed a finishing drill in training. Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang, the Arsenal captain, was impressed and he had the perfect nickname for him: petit piment, or little chilli. Saka may be small but there is quite a kick to him.
“Auba kept saying it and I kept scoring,” Saka says. “I was shooting with so much power and he was calling me ‘little chilli’ in French. From then on, he kept calling me it and it became a thing. Now it’s a big thing and a lot of people call me it. A chilli is spicy and I think that’s what Auba was going for. You’ve not seen my chain? It’s on my Instagram …”
The chain was a present from Aubameyang. Saka had one in the shape of a small chilli but Aubameyang said before the 2020 FA Cup final that he would buy him another if they won. Thanks to two goals from Aubameyang, they overcame Chelsea and, a little while later, Saka took delivery of the gift – a chain featuring a red chilli with a silver stem and his surname embossed in silver block capitals on it.
“I’m grateful, I love it, it’s unique,” Saka says. “It’s a show of how great a character Auba is, how important he is for me and, I’d say, for the team in terms of the happiness and the vibes in the dressing room.”
That Saka has been able to win over the coolest guy at Arsenal says a lot, too, about his own character, not to mention his ability. It has been a difficult season for the club but Saka has been one of the shining lights, never hiding from the pressure; rather embracing it.
Saka is a leader of the team at just 19; incredibly versatile, having played everywhere up both flanks and even in central attacking midfield. He is blessed with a rare talent for exploding into seams of space, for skating away from opponents with the ball.
Gareth Southgate, the England manager, described him last week as being “like a slippery eel getting away from those challenges” and Saka’s mission at Euro 2020 is to deepen his integration into the squad, learn from the experience and, if he gets any minutes, seize the opportunity.
Saka mentions how he is the only Arsenal player in Southgate’s 26, as his club-mate, Ainsley Maitland‑Niles, did not make the cut, and he “had to try and get to know my new teammates without someone there to break the ice”.
He adds: “It was quite easy. The boys are all good vibes. Even the thing about club rivalries … I don’t think when we’re in the changing room they think about that.
“Just the attackers I’m training with – Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane. When I was in the England youth team, they are the players I used to watch when we came over to watch first-team training. Or I’d watch them on YouTube. You can learn different things from them – movement, passing.”
Saka considers himself as a forward option. He won his first four caps as a left wing-back but in his fifth against Austria last week, when he scored the only goal, he started on the left wing before switching to the right after substitutions on the hour.
“I’m here as a forward, I would say, and that’s where I have been training,” Saka says. “But anything can happen in football, as you’ve seen in my career.”
Saka intends to drink it all in and, as he has at Arsenal, fight with everything he has. “It was tough at times [this season] but Arsenal is the club I grew up in, the club I love,” Saka says. “For me, it was always about never giving up. We did not get to see the fans much in the stadium but I could feel their support so it was only right I should give my best for them.”