I can’t think of a specific watershed moment where the adulation of specific players changed into pleasant dispassion, but I know it happened. As I bled on paper for Fàbregas, Rosický, Nasri, and even Flamini, I assumed a happy longevity verging on timelessness of the player and the crest in the naive confines of my mind. As loyalty went unrequited, injuries hit, dream clubs were joined, titles were won elsewhere, contracts were seen out, and player turnover time decreased, this temple of manic hero worship shattered ad infinitum and a towering,
Mordoresque altar of atheism rose in its place. Never fall for players lest your heart break; follow the name on the front of the jersey and don’t think about the name on the back. Héctor Bellerín, however, makes this poker face act very difficult.
It starts instantaneously with some players, with others it creeps up gradually, a small lotus progressing through shades of pink in moss infested waters. I noticed Bellerín when he came on in extra-time against West Bromwich Albion in the League Cup in 2013 – baby-faced honesty and rawness belying the potential that lay ahead.
A year later, a glut of injuries shunted him into the limelight against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, where he was soundly overwhelmed in a 2-0 loss. He then started against Stoke, mouthing like an asphyxiated goldfish before being taken off at half-time in a 3-2 loss. But interspersed between the missed passes and deer in headlights moments, there were glimmers – a propensity to look and pass forward, a willingness to run with the ball and gamble, a refusal to let his head drop after setbacks. Whether it was these glimmers, an implicit maturity, or a side-parted coiffure, there was something to this Spaniard that conveyed an easy likability.
On his Arsenal debut, Bellerín would later reflect: “When you play your first games you’re just trying not to make a mistake. Then as you get more confident you start playing the way you usually play.”
It helped that Bellerín came through the youth ranks, plucked from La Masia as Fàbregas made his return to Catalan shores, a romantic passing of the baton force fitted by the idealist in me. A quick viewing of his moments at La Masia, his flashes during a loan spell at Watford, or his sojourn with the under 19s revealed attributes both persistent and varying. At La Masia he was a winger and
At La Masia he was a winger and crosser par excellence, fizzing in low ones, curling in loopy ones, meeting near post darts and far post runs with equal alacrity and foresight. By the time he was plying his trade as an Arsenal understudy, he was a fledgeling right-back with both chinks and chains in his armour. He was nippy in the tackle, flooded forward to support the attack, still loved the odd cross, and displayed a confidence on the ball only an ex-Blaugrana can. He was also definitely a work in progress, sticking onto the ball too long on occasion, passing to team-mates under pressure sometimes, and getting caught out of position in his eagerness to bomb forward.
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I won’t pretend that I paid special attention to Bellerín at the time; vicariously living through the development of youth players is a habitual use of any obsessed fan’s time. Indeed, I had as keen an eye on Bellerín’s Catalan compatriot Jon Toral, a wide-eyed attacking midfielder whose talent and youth performances promised much. But I had this nagging feeling (of course I’ll say that now, but I did) that Bellerín had the potential to hit footballing pay dirt at this club. Like a mother who loves both children equally but secretly knows which one will end up going to college, I rooted for both youngsters and eagerly tracked their advancement.
Arsenal youth expert Jeorge Bird says: “His [Bellerín’s] loan spell at Watford, although short, was also crucial in his development in terms of allowing him to gain experience of professional football.” Getting game time in a functional back line at Watford proved priceless for Bellerín, who came back into the Arsenal fold a much better defender.
Capable of converting defence into attack with a subtle drop of the shoulder, he formed a fruitful partnership with Chuba Akpom, laying on a conveyor belt of crosses for the striker’s benefit. While Bellerín was getting better by the day, the final piece of the puzzle for youth players to break down the first team door divulged itself: serendipity. Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers were injured and Carl Jenkinson was out on loan; when Bellerín’s pager buzzed, boy did he answer.
Surviving the rough and tumble of the lower leagues, impressing in the under-19s and 21s, getting a sliver of an opportunity on the big stage and ensconcing it within iron clawed hands: I had daydreamed of my own similar ascension to the red and white throne so many times in my callow years. Deep in REM sleep, a land devoid of realism or judgment, Bellerín made me believe that had timelines shifted a little (okay, a lot), I might have made it too.
With searing pace and relentless certainty, Bellerín’s performances for the first team improved. Attacking courage was maintained and defensive discipline was bettered. The boy who shook like an aspen leaf in the Westfalenstadion wind morphed into the man who barked orders at his team-mates as Arsenal conducted a light-brigade charge on Olympiakos one year later. For fans who lived through the goalscoring deserts traversed by Lauren, Emmanuel Eboué, and Bacary Sagna, Bellerín’s drive against Aston Villa and delicious curler against Liverpool were drops of water from an oasis of unknowable joy. Maybe I should get a Bellerín jersey? Don’t be silly, joy is ephemeral, and everyone leaves.
Once affection for a player is established, you start noticing and mentally highlighting on-field moments, personal traits and eccentricities, collecting coins to drop down your well of confirmation bias. Giving Bafétimbi Gomis a 20-meter head start before burning up the grass and plucking the ball from his flailing legs, pulling off a robbery under floodlights from Douglas Costa before Barry Allening his way into the box and laying it on a plate for Mesut Özil, powering in from a neighbouring zip code to leave Pedro bruised and red-faced; for once, I was grateful for social media’s propensity to package content in GIFs and vines, and consumed these bitesized beauties with religious regularity.
When rumours surfaced of Man City and Barcelona sniffing around his ankles, I feared a return of the despair that followed hero worship gone wrong, but I was surprised. What manifested instead was a mixture of hope and indifference, the emotional equivalent of the shrug+straightface emoji. Had my jilted tales of love in the past deadened the negative feelings of players leaving while allowing me to revel in the enjoyment of their presence? The more I reflected, the more I was sure: the hormonal teenage phase of my footballing fandom had been supplanted by a mature que sera sera twenty-something ready to accept the happiness of the present and compromise with nostalgia when the future was bleak. As Bellerín had grown, so had I.
So while he’s signed a new contract and should be at Arsenal for the next six years (in theory), I find myself not caring much either way. I unabashedly admire him as a player and as a person, and I’m confident of distancing that admiration without it descending into dislike in case he leaves. The atheistic altar has altered and in its place now exists a formless agnosticism. Bellerín can stay with us till the end of time or move on to newer pastures, but man is it fun to see that son of a gun tearing down the wing, opponents prone and grass blades singed in his wake.
By Abhishek Iyer. Follow @Nickspinkboots