THE prayers of Bukayo Saka were not answered on Sunday night, as England lost to Italy 3-2 on penalties in the final of the Euros at Wembley Stadium. The 19-year-old Arsenal star missed from the spot, handing victory to Italy.
Saka has been reported as saying: “I hold on to God’s promises, such as the scripture ‘therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’”
His were not the only prayers, however. The Italian manager, Roberto Mancini, is a devout Roman Catholic, and has credited his faith with helping him to succeed as a coach.
The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, posted on Twitter: “My heart breaks for Saka — too young to carry the hope of the whole country on his shoulders.”
The former Archbishop of York Lord Sentamu, who continued his social-media match commentary, as he had done during the semi-final, said that this was “a harsh and cruel end”. But he thanked the England side “for giving us hope and self-belief”, and acknowledged that the side had been “on an incredible journey”.
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, was philosophical: “We’ll just have to settle for the 2022 World Cup I suppose.”
Saka’s was the third missed penalty in a row, so the blame for England’s loss ought not to fall on his shoulders alone: immediately before him, Marcus Rashford and Jordan Sancho also failed to find the net. “We never could do penalties,” the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, tweeted. He went on: “There is a remarkable synergy and overlap of experience between being an England fan and being a Spurs fan.”
In the run-up to the match — the men’s team’s first international tournament final in 55 years — the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, lead bishop for sport, said: “The saints in heaven, I’m sure, are rejoicing with us at the delight that this competition is bringing to so many — and goodness, don’t we need it.” She would not be drawn on the result: “The Church is universal, and God doesn’t have any favourites.” It was her hope, however, if not prayer, that England would win 2-1.
On Sunday morning, the Archbishop of Canterbury had written on social media that he would be praying for Gareth Southgate and his team: “You’ve shown courage, resilience and compassion — on and off the pitch — and brought joy to millions.”
The national director for England for Sports Chaplaincy UK, Matt Baker, said in an interview published on the C of E website, published on Saturday: “We all know what a tough 18 months it has been and England’s progress and Gareth Southgate’s leadership have definitely lifted the national mood. For many, it’s been a real blessing.”
Two minutes into the final on Sunday, Luke Shaw scored. England held on to their 1-0 lead until half time, when, once again, Lord Sentamu was on hand with dressing-room advice: “Your job now at half time is to keep a clean sheet! But better still score!”
Unfortunately for England, it was Italy who scored next, Leonardo Bonucci finding the net at 67 minutes. The score remained 1-1 until 90 minutes, taking the match into extra time.
“Come on England. Please don’t take it to the wire!,” Lord Sentamu tweeted 11 minutes into extra time. “Please revitalise the team! Regain the attacking football!”
The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, remained positive: “I sense that we’ll win in extra time.” But at time went on, Bishop North pleaded: “Please please not penalties! I don’t have the inner strength for penalties!”
As the penalties got under way, he advised: “Keep it simple boys. Just thump it.” Kane and Maguire did just that, both converting from the spot. Rashford and Sancho, however, both missed, leaving Saka with the nation’s hopes on his shoulders.
The upbeat national mood that had preceded the final took a darker tone in the hours after England’s defeat. Rashford, Sancho, and Saka all received racist abuse on social media. This was “utterly shocking and unacceptable”, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, wrote on Twitter on Monday morning. “Praying for a better future where we are all seen as part of one humanity.”
On Monday afternoon, the officers of the General Synod, who include Archbishop Cottrell, issued a statement, which said: “On behalf of the General Synod we wish to applaud the achievements of the England men’s football team in reaching the final of Euro 2020. The multicultural composition of the team, and the sense of mutual support which they exude is a model for the whole country.
“As officers of the General Synod we wish to express our deep disappointment and concern that the achievement has been marred by disgraceful racial abuse.”
Archbishop Welby, who is on sabbatical, wrote on social media on Monday afternoon that the England team was “an example, a gift and a reflection of what’s best about this country. Rashford, Sancho and Saka showed incredible courage in stepping up to take penalties. Those who are racially abusing them show the opposite and must be held accountable.”
Despite the defeat, praise continued to be heaped on the England team’s performance, and in particularly, the approach of their manager. The Revd Peter Crumpler, a priest in St Albans diocese and a former director of communications at Church House, Westminster, observed on the Church Times Podcast last week that,“whenever Gareth Southgate is invited to take some of the credit, he will spread that credit around”.
After Sunday’s defeat, he did not seek to pin the blame on anyone but himself. “That is my responsibility,” he said. “I chose the guys to take the kicks. I told the players that nobody is on their own in that situation. We win and lose together as a team.”
That, Dr Wilcox said, was “outstanding leadership”.