Hector Bellerin – the pioneer
Hector Bellerin certainly doesn’t subscribe to any of the above. A talented, passionate, principled and intelligent young man who is doing things his own way.
In many ways he’s been the victim of his own dramatic and sudden rise a few years ago. His superb performance v Guardiola’s swashbuckling Bayern Munich side in the autumn of 2015 signalled a right back who could seemingly walk into any of the elite European sides. We seemed destined to be victims of the dreaded “Barca DNA” and the inevitable returning to the mothership. Since then his performances have become more normalised of what you might expect from a young right back learning his trade at a top club.
This coordinated with Bellerin’s growing sense of expression and independent thought. First he grew his hair. This was met with a choral tut of “get a haircut” from a wide range of fans. As he increasingly expressed his passion for fashion on social media, which can only be described as alternative, the comments, tuts and general disapproval of match going fans and keyboard warriors alike was sustained. As Bellerin says in his recent interview with Matthew Syed in the Sunday Times;
“Some of it can get very abusive. Most of the abuse is online, but you hear it in the stadium too. People have called me ‘lesbian’ for growing my hair. There are other kinds of homophobic insults. I have learnt to grow a thick skin but it can affect you. Every now and again, you get a bit of self-doubt.”
Had Bellerin kept his hair conservative and withheld any alternative expression on social media, the Neanderthal tendencies of the terraces wouldn’t have had as much of a bone to chew on. But Bellerin is his own man and a man with courage.
Personally I haven’t witnessed a footballer display as much courage in years as the Catalonian did amidst the toxic atmosphere of Selhurst Park in April 2017. It was possibly the most cutting, angry and painful away supports I’d been a part of following The Arsenal. Naturally then it was also one of the poorest and disappointing Arsenal displays I had witnessed. Bellerin had to take the vast amount of the sustained and angry chants of “you’re not fit to wear the shirt!”.. and the rest, none of which my wife and I joined in with. Of course this was aimed at the whole team but with Bellerin playing on the nearest side in his usual full back position, he couldn’t escape it.
On the final whistle, the supposed “senior players” such as Sanchez, Ozil, Koscielny etc darted straight for the tunnel. Several of them took one look towards the away end, almost like they were considering coming over before realising the scale of the anger. However, young Bellerin purposely walked straight down to us with the chants and anger as high, aggressive and expletive ridden as they had been all game at this point. He came right up to the touch line and offered a gesture of respect and consultation. It was a few moments where I saw a proper man with courage and principles way beyond his years – indeed far more than of any of his senior colleagues.
This is a man who has an interest in what people might refer to as eccentric fashion styles and has long hair long. He’s someone who’s not afraid to speak his mind on complex subjects outside of football as he demonstrated so articulately with his appearance at the Oxford Union. He’s someone who should be celebrated and encouraged at a time when football and society as a whole is making progress, but still dragging its heals, with breaking traditional gender perceptions and expectations.
I’ve got to come clean and say that my initial reaction to this emerging alternatively dressed, long haired Hector Bellerin was negative. It’s a societal expectation that’s entrenched on what a footballer should be. I initially unknowingly allowed this to inform my thinking. It’s something that goes beyond football. I’m ashamed to say that as Bellerin’s performances levelled out, I very much subscribed to the “get a haircut” vein of thought although I stopped short of shouting any such personal remarks on the terraces – we’re “supporters” after all, the clue is in the first 7 letters.
As my first hand experience of him showed at Palace away he’s a man who has no less courage than the confirming archetypical George Graham forged stalwarts, some people wish he was. There will always be a part of football culture who subscribes to that. It’s the player who works hard, gets on with it and fits into traditional perceptions. As Bellerin says;
“The problem is that people have an idea of what a footballer should look like, how they should behave, what they should talk about. You act a little differently and you become a target. There is pressure to conform. This is very dangerous. In life, you should be allowed to express yourself. People are happier like this.”
Hector Bellerin has my respect and hopefully he is paving the way for more footballers to express themselves freely, whether it’s coming out, modelling the next wackiest outfit combination on the cat walk or train spotting. More importantly as a world renowned public figure he is saying to young people that it’s ok to be different. I couldn’t really care less what Arsenal players are interested in or how they dress. If it makes them happy, great.
The beautiful game and the biggest sport in the world should reflect its stakeholders. People from all walks of life, sex, creed and race enjoy football. Hector Bellerin is a pioneer in breaking down stereotypes and making wider connections between football and society as a whole. I salute you.
North Londoner living in exile north of the border. During the week I’m a PE teacher.