In recent years, the League Cup has become increasingly bemoaned by football fans and managers alike. Even the winning coach in the past two seasons, Pep Guardiola, has questioned the wisdom behind a second cup competition. For higher-level clubs it represents more inconvenience than opportunity, largely being used to give youth players a taste of first-team football.
Such an occasion came in late September 2013, when Mikel Arteta was replaced in the fifth minute of extra-time after cramping up in a third-round tie at West Brom. By the time Arteta returned as manager some seven years later, his replacement that night would have gone on to become one of the club’s most important players – and not just on the pitch.
Héctor Bellerín was born in the coastal town of Calella, some 50km up the coast from Barcelona. Both his parents would have a profound impact on his future. As a young boy, his father would take him to the fields of a nearby school to play football at weekends, while his mother lit the fire of his other passion: fashion. In childhood, however, much like now, football always came first, and in 2003 the eight-year-old would make the journey to Barcelona, joining La Masia.
This would see Bellerín receive a top-class football education, but upon reaching the age of 16, he decided to make a bold decision indicative of his personality. Having made it known to Barça that he was unwilling to sign a contract, the club stopped playing him in youth games. Unhappy, an approach from Arsenal in 2011 came at just the right time. Having visited the club’s training ground and met Arsène Wenger, this was shortly followed by a deal.
Such a decision to relocate at the age of 16 is something few with his limited years would consider, yet Bellerín is renowned for being different. He made the decision to move to Arsenal on the plane back to Barcelona, with a clear focus on succeeding. He moved in with an English family, living with them for two years as he adapted to the culture and picked up the new language.
Adaptation was the order of his early years, even on the pitch. Having grown up as a winger, Wenger decided to move Bellerín into defence. Steve Bould was assigned one-on-one training sessions so he could help Bellerín work on his defensive game, with the Spaniard also learning from senior players such as Tomáš Rosický. In early March 2012, he made his debut in the Premier Reserve League, as it was then known, scoring in a 2-0 win over Chelsea.
Bellerín quickly made a name for himself with his ability, in particular his blistering pace. He continued his development in the 2012/13 season in the newly renamed Premier League 2, whilst sitting on the bench as an unused substitute in League Cup wins over Coventry and Reading. The following season he would make his debut in the same competition, coming off the bench in the aforementioned game against West Brom.
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Cliché it may be, but young players grow up far quicker playing in the men’s game than reserve or youth team football. So much was apparent on Bellerín’s full professional debut, which came following the completion of a two-month loan to Watford in November 2013. Starting as a right wing-back, it was a stark reality check as the Hornets crashed to a shocking 3-0 home defeat to bottom of the league Yeovil.
A false start, Bellerín would go on to impress at Vicarage Road. Of particular note was his role in a 3-3 draw with Leeds, where he led a superb counter-attack for Cristian Battochio to score. Resultingly, Watford were only too happy to extend his loan until the end of the 2013/14 season; unfortunately for them, Arsenal disagreed. He would lose his place to Davide Faraoni, with Arsenal subsequently cancelling the temporary stay in February 2014 and naming Bellerín on the bench for four Premier League games.
Nevertheless, on 17 July 2014, Arsenal signed Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle, with the intention he would replace his departing compatriot Bacary Sagna at right-back. The Frenchman would start the season where Wenger had intended, although in just his fourth league match, a 2-2 draw at home to Manchester City, he would injure his ankle. Replaced by fellow summer signing Calum Chambers, he too made himself unavailable after picking up a fifth yellow card in just seven matches.
This left Wenger without a right-back – or so that is what many fans believed. Bellerín’s full Arsenal debut would go much the same way as his bow with Watford, with an injury-time equaliser from Danny Welbeck salvaging a draw at home to Hull. With Chambers once again available to select, Bellerín’s next start would come just under two months later away at Stoke, however with the team 3-0 down, he was taken off at half-time for Welbeck.
The Spaniard’s reprieve would come in the reverse match with Stoke in early January 2015. Debuchy would dislocate his shoulder and Bellerín was called from the bench. He put in an impressive performance in the 3-0 win and would retain the starting right-back slot for all bar three of the remaining 17 league matches. At last, Bellerín had arrived.
He scored twice in this run, a fantastic 30-yard strike in a 5-0 hammering of Aston Villa and the opener in a 4-1 win over Liverpool where he curled in with his left foot. Bellerín would later play the full 90 minutes against Villa in the FA Cup final to capture his first trophy. Returning to Wembley, the 2015/16 season would begin in the best possible fashion with a victory over Chelsea in the Community Shield.
By now Arsenal’s undisputed starting right-back, he would help the Gunners finish second in that season’s Premier League, whilst being their sole representative in the PFA Team of the Year. Linked with a return to Barcelona and move to Manchester City, in November 2016 Bellerín sought to quash these rumours by signing a new six-and-a-half-year deal at the Emirates. It’s that loyalty which has endeared him to Gunners fans.
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Concurrently, that same month it was revealed in an interview with The Times that Bellerín had enrolled in a six-month online course at the University of Philadelphia. “I have a lot of hours to spare and I like to keep my mind active. I read a lot, and this is a career where you are finished playing and you are still only halfway through your life, so I want to be sure I am ready to do the next thing,” he explained.
Most 21-year-old footballers don’t spend their free time taking notes and completing tests for a marketing diploma, but such foresight is one of the cornerstones of Bellerín’s personality.
He is also renowned for his environmental activism, having traded in his Mercedes for a second-hand electric-powered Tesla. The player also became vegan in 2016, crediting this as a major aspect in helping him reach his full potential. “The sustainability of the environment and animal cruelty now motivate me just as much as health … knowing I’m doing the right things makes me really happy to be vegan.”
It is somewhat ironic that Bellerín is one of the first footballers to publicly display such actions, given his renowned speed. Rumours abound of how he broke a longstanding record at Arsenal held by Theo Walcott. Suitably modest, the player put it down to working with a strength and conditioning coach, rather than any natural talent. “My work you don’t see, in the shadows, really shows on the pitch.”
Not that he refrains from stepping into the public limelight. During the summer of 2017, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster, Bellerín pledged to donate £50 for every minute he played at the upcoming European Under-21 Championship to those affected by the fire. Spain reached the final, losing to Germany, and Bellerín donated over £19,000 to the British Red Cross.
Such activism was widely lauded, with Gary Lineker matching the donation, while Raheem Sterling, who grew up nearby, also gave a sizeable sum. Just as Sterling finds himself in the public eye, the same sight of the media’s sniper rifle of criticism has been placed on Bellerín in recent years.
One such example came when he turned up to London Fashion Week in 2018 wearing pyjamas and £650 slippers. “Very questionable”, was how the Daily Mail described his choice of attire, with some quarters stating how the player was attention-seeking. This, however, would be jumping to preposterous conclusions.
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Bellerín’s love for fashion is part of the fabric of who he is, with both his mother and grandmother – the latter who owned a fashion factory – heavily involved in making clothes throughout his life. Embracing this, it is something Bellerín feels has brought him closer to his family. Meanwhile, in relation to the Grenfell Tower donation, this came owing to several of his friends being involved in the fire, and the fact that it occurred in a city he now very much thinks of as home.
In more recent times he has been spotted on the catwalk for Louis Vuitton at Paris Fashion Week, alongside being interviewed by Vogue. In response to the naysayers, Bellerín is typically open-minded: “When all these people don’t know what they’re actually talking about, it’s something that you just don’t listen to. I’m always going to keep doing it, regardless of what people say, that’s just who I am.”
Being pioneering is something that took Bellerín and his endearing London-Spanish accent to the renowned Oxford Union. In February 2018 he became the first active Premier League footballer to attend the debating society. “I loved it, when you do a football interview it is very easy to stick to a formula,” he told The Times, “but the questions from students were wider.”
Such topics covered in the 40-minute Q&A included Catalan independence, depression and moving to China. In it, Bellerín came across as an articulate, charming, witty man who is far more than just his football. That’s nothing but refreshing.
This is not to say that he hasn’t continued to deliver on that side of things. Remaining at the Emirates, during the 2017/18 season he played 47 times for Arsenal. Used mainly as a wing-back in a five-man defence, Bellerín helped the club reach the semi-finals of the Europa League, alongside securing a last-minute draw against Chelsea in January 2018 with a fine finish.
Unfortunately, his progress as of late has been stunted by a ruptured cruciate ligament sustained in early January 2019. A further hamstring injury interrupted the current season, prior to the confusion brought about by Covid-19. In the subsequent lockdown Bellerín has shaved his head, followed by a typical media response of scepticism whilst he laughs it off. It is such an attitude, combined with his ability and fierce loyalty, that has seen him win the hearts and minds of Arsenal fans the world over. He’s one of theirs.
“I think as footballers, we have a massive platform that we should use way more than we actually are,” he told the club’s YouTube channel in October 2018. Still only 25, one has to wonder where the future will take Hector Bellerín, both on and off the pitch. What is certain is that he’ll try new things and look to do good in a world so desperately in need of his honest example.
By James Kelly @jkell403