Héctor Bellerín is early for our cover shoot. His management sign off our interview questions, without hesitation, within five minutes of his arrival. Héctor shakes everyone’s hand, takes a moment to chat, and then unpacks a selection of clothing he has brought from home, including a pair of trousers he has made with his mother.
His friends—Héctor doesn’t come flanked by an entourage of assistants, he comes with two pals—take snapshots on their iPhones and mercilessly take the piss out of him for the next four hours. Héctor laughs and jokes with our crew, requests ‘something a bit more reggaeton’ on the stereo, and reluctantly divulges that it’s Rob Houlding who looks after the music in the Arsenal dressing room. It used to be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
This whole thing, easily the most relaxed footballer photoshoot we have ever been involved in, has been arranged via Instagram direct message and WhatsApp voice note. Héctor Bellerín does things differently from other footballers. Whether it’s how he dresses, how he eats, the car he drives, or how he approaches his career, he does things his own way…
“Football was my one and only thing when I was a kid,” he explains later, in an accent that sits somewhere between Catalunya and Clapton and now changed into a relatively subdued pink hoodie and grey slacks combination. “My grandmother had made clothes my whole life, my mum followed her, and, at home, there were just materials and fabrics everywhere... But when I was very young, football was absolutely everything. My earliest memories are of jumping fences with my dad. We had a school next to our flat, and it used to be closed on Saturdays and Sundays. The fence wasn’t too tall so we’d both jump over and play. When I think about it, you know, it wasn’t really safe to let a five-year-old jump the fence, but it was all for the love of football. Clothes have always been part of my life, but football absolutely came first.”
It’s safe to say that Bellerín Snr’s act of putting football first—slightly ahead of the family trade, and at times ahead of his son’s safety—would pay off in a big way. At eight years old, long before he became North London’s trendiest right back, before the London Fashion Week appearance, before the Oxford Union address, before the wavy Instagram fit era, Héctor was picked up by La Masia—Barcelona’s prestigious academy. Surely a dream for any family in Catalonia, and the culmination of a childhood full of hope and expectation...
“My dad actually supported Real Betis,” he laughs half-nervously. “He grew up in Seville, you know, and so I grew up as a Betis fan. All my first kits were Real Betis.”
When he speaks about football Héctor becomes wary. It seems an aspect of his life that is inextricably linked to his father, his family, and his upbringing. He taps his foot on the coffee table, twisting the strings on his hoodie, he puts his hood up and ruffles his hair with it. The chirpy confidence momentarily disappears.
“I don’t believe that there’s a footballer out there that only thinks about football”
It’s as if he wants to get it just right. He wants to set the record straight on how much the game means to him, what it’s always meant. He doesn’t quite struggle for words, but the distinctly London to be fairs, likes and y’knows that punctuate each sentence begin to multiply, and buy him some much-needed time. “It was always his dream, you know, to see me play football,” he says. “He had played and didn’t make it for one reason or another. So when I joined Barca, he was obviously very proud and I was so excited to play there.
“I used to finish school and I couldn’t wait to get in a car to go to Barcelona and train. Since I was a very young kid in school they’d asked me ‘Ah, come on Héctor, what career do you wanna take on?’ and I’d say ‘I wanna be a footballer’ and they were like ‘Héctor, that’s not... that’s not real you know, you need to be trying to be a doctor or a lawyer.’ So when this happened, I was a bit like ‘Well, what do you have to say now?’”
He grins and relaxes again. He’s a young man who is, in the most part, extremely comfortable in his own skin. He gives off the impression that this always been the case. The pressure doesn’t seem to come from exterior sources. The opinions of others don’t affect him unless they come from someone he implicitly trusts—his family, his friends, the boss. Was this true even at Barcelona?
“At Barcelona at the time, they had players like Rivaldo, Xavi and Iniesta. They were always big examples for us and reminded us that we were playing for the best academy in the world. For me, though, when I was young, it was always about having fun with your football, and when Ronaldinho came to Barcelona he was such… Not a breath of fresh air, but he was just so different. A player that was always smiling. It was so cool and exciting to see him every week. He became my footballing idol during that period. He was someone I really looked up to. He did what he wanted to do.”
As with every footballer at La Masia, however, playing football for fun couldn’t last forever, and after six years at the academy things became serious. Héctor’s transformation into a professional was under way. Keen to cut his own path in life, the fiercely independent teenager wasn’t entirely sure he was ready to commit to a life at Barça. At 14, he was approached by an agent, the same one he works with to this day, and was forced to answer some serious questions about his future in the game.
“It was a bit like ‘I’m young, do I really need an agent?’ But a few of the other players had already been taken on by agents, brands had started sending me boots and I’d started to be approached by a few teams, so it was like ‘Okay, so this is gonna really happen.’ By the time I was 16, I wasn’t very happy with the way I was being treated by Barcelona. I told them I didn’t want to sign my contract yet, and I started getting problems in the team. They didn’t want me to play. I was just training, and as a 16-year-old you don’t want to be treated like that. You’re still just a kid. Eventually, Arsenal approached me, and to tell you the truth I was probably ready to leave.
“I came to London, I met Mr Wenger, I saw the facilities and I was like, ‘This is for me.’ It was that simple. On the plane back, I was sitting next to my agent and I said to him ‘Tomorrow you can call them. I want to go through with it.’ He was saying ‘Do you not want to speak to your parents or something?’ and I was like ‘I will speak to them but there’s nothing they really can do, I have made my mind up and I want to be an Arsenal player.’ This was when it hit me that I was going to become a professional footballer.”
“I’ve always wanted to be a bit different, but I think London had a massive influence on that”
Moving away from the town you grew up in, away from your family and friends, away from a distinguished academy that had tutored you in football since the age of eight, would be a difficult decision to make for most 16-year-olds. Héctor hadn’t even touched tarmac back in Barcelona before he had committed his future to Arsenal, and to London. Eight years later, he is still an Arsenal player. Eight years later, he is a Londoner. From his accent to his mannerisms, the way he dresses and the people he surrounds himself with: Héctor Bellerín is a Londoner.
“I’ve always wanted to be a bit different, but I think London had a massive influence on that,” he says. “I feel like when you go to Spain people are a bit more old-fashioned, and when you’re in the street everyone judges you a little bit more. I feel London is a city where there are so many different styles, so many different groups of people and subcultures, that even if you do get those looks in the street, you don’t really care. At the age of sixteen, coming over here, walking out on the street and seeing so many people just doing their own thing, it inspired me a lot.
“I used to live in digs and I used to say to the landlady ‘Where should I go this Sunday?’ and she was like ‘You need to go to Camden’, or ‘You need to go to Covent Garden’. I just used to go and explore London. I still do it now, I’m very spontaneous. As much as it’s hard sometimes, I always I try to live my life as normal as I can, people will see me walking around the street and I just keep my life living as a 23-year-old. What I like about this city is that every single day there is something to do, there’s so much life. It’s like the capital of Europe. I don’t think I would have that opportunity to express myself if I hadn’t moved to London.”
It is perhaps this desire to express himself, coupled with the spirit of independence that took him away from Barcelona and the confidence he displays on and off the pitch that is most interesting about Bellerín. It’s the reason he is within these pages wearing leather shorts and talking so openly. It’s the reason why so early in his career we know so much about him, and why we feel an affinity towards him ahead of many other footballers his age. It’s the reason why, for the last two years, MUNDIAL has been tagged in almost all of his Instagram pictures by readers and subscribers. It is also the reason, however, in an age in which a footballer can be attacked in the tabloids for buying his mother a house or for getting a tattoo or smoking a cigarette, why Héctor Bellerín has a target painted on his back.
A 23-year-old vegan footballer with a penchant for avant-garde fashion, self-expression, and independence is an endangered species, and good old-fashioned English football fans are constantly on the hunt for a scapegoat. He receives a weekly barrage of online insults, criticism and what he refers to as ‘hate’, seemingly regardless of how he has performed in the red and white of Arsenal.
“Football has always been my number one thing, but I have other things in my life, like fashion, which is something that has always been in my family"
“I mean, I don’t believe that there’s a footballer out there that only thinks about football,” he says. “I just don’t believe it. People have different passions, people have hobbies, people have lives outside their job, and nowadays it seems like the only thing we are allowed to do is train and play football.
“Football has always been my number one thing, but I have other things in my life, like fashion, which is something that has always been in my family. When I see people saying things like ‘He just dresses like that because he wants attention’, it hurts a little more. Fashion is something that brought me closer to my family as I grew up. It’s something that was deep inside me, in my roots, and I started taking more interest as I grew older because it reminded me of my mother and my grandmother. It’s not something I take lightly, and I’m going to be open about it.
“I feel like footballers have such a massive platform that we barely use, for different reasons. Every single player is so unique, you don’t know where they come from, how hard it was for them to play football, the reasons why they play the game. Some players want to be private, some players are probably scared of the outcome of being themselves. Personally, I think that we can influence people to be themselves, to change the way they think, to live a better life, whatever it is. We don’t do it enough, and I feel like that just something that I’ve always wanted to do. I think that’s the good thing about social media, right? It gives opportunities to fans and for people to actually know more about our personalities.
"Losing a game or making a mistake that costs you a game is the worst thing that can happen”
“We train every morning, sometimes we have double sessions, and sometimes we do training outside of what we do with Arsenal, but at the end of the day, we have loads of free time. Some players have families and have the responsibility to pick up their kids from school, feed them, play with them, but I’m young. I have the opportunity to spend that time doing other things, things that I’m passionate about. So many people around football are really cruel, and you know they’ll blame your performances on what I’ve been doing in my spare time, but they get angrier at a mistake or angrier at a game than us. And, for us, as players, losing a game or making a mistake that costs you a game is the worst thing that can happen.”
The wariness returns briefly. His hood goes back up. It’s impossible not to believe him, and to think that this is something Héctor Bellerín has spent a lot of time thinking about. “Sometimes after a game I can’t sleep, or I don’t sleep for two days because I’m thinking about the mistake over and over again,” he says. “People will never see that and, you know, I don’t care if people know that or not. It’s me. I know what I feel and those mistakes will only make me work harder to make sure that it don’t happen again It hurts me losing at dominos or cards, how is it not gonna hurt me playing for the club I love, you know?”
It’s with this that our talk turns back to football, and the fuller picture of Bellerín begins to take shape. He’s a passionate individual, his independent streak means that he won’t take no for an answer. He loves football and he loves fashion, and he won’t listen to anyone that tells him he has to choose.
These aren’t two halves of his personality, they are two interwoven into his life. Through his parents, and through his experiences over the course of the last two decades. The sixteen-year-old, raised at La Masia, was shaped into a young man at Arsenal, and with several seasons as a professional under his belt, he feels confident enough to stand by his decisions. Whether it be on the pitch or off it.
“It’s weird you know, not just so much becoming a footballer but like what’s around it,” he says. “Obviously when you’re a kid the only thing you see is you, the ball, and scoring goals. Then all this other stuff comes in. There are so many distractions, and you have to remind yourself that you wake up every morning to do what you have always wanted to do. As I said, it was never really work at Barcelona, I just played football. They only teach you how to play the Barça Way, though, and I left Barcelona at the right age for me to start learning the other side of football: the physicality, the defending, all this stuff. The few years that I have had at Arsenal—plus the years that I had at Barcelona—was the perfect combination for me to be the player who I am today.
"You’re playing for a badge, you’re playing for a group of people"
“Steve Bould was the biggest influence in all of this for me. I mean, in my first game at 16 playing against Watford, the winger was just running past me like I wasn’t there. I had played probably five games as a right back before. I was always a winger, signed for Arsenal and they told me I had to be a right back now. I was like “Oh… cool.” Steve Bould was the one that taught me all the basics and my body positions, holding the line, when should I come out, when should I stay, when should I attack, when I shouldn’t. Obviously, I was a winger, so all the time I just wanna be up there. Then there was The Boss. Once I got into the first team, Mr Wenger taught me so much. I think there are loads of values that loads of clubs try and instil, and they want their image to be like this, and to be like that, but at the end of the day it’s the people that you deal with that make the club and Arsenal has always been like a family to me because of how I have been treated by the likes of Steve Bould and Arsène Wenger.”
Heading into a new era, at a club that he considers his family, in a city that he considers his home, Héctor is now a senior squad member at Arsenal. “I had players here I looked up to when I came here,” he says. “Like Rosický. You know, Rosický, when I used to defend him I was really young and I was a bit scared. He’d come to me in training, like ‘Héctor, you know what, if you defend me this way, for me, it’s harder’ and then I’d get the ball back on the next one and he’d say ‘Well done, Héctor’. Now I’m the one that, if there’s a winger that comes up from the under 23s, and he does something, I say ‘Oh you should do it like this because, for me, it’s harder.” It’s a great environment and when people have helped you, you can do the same towards other people.”
Talking about what ambitions are left, he winces when he talks about not travelling to Russia this summer with the Spanish squad. He explains how he sees every new season as a clean slate, he talks of how he wants to improve every single game and how Arsenal’s defeat to Manchester City on the opening day of the season was another lesson learned, not just for him but for all at the club. The professionalism that he reluctantly adapted to at fourteen years of age, it becomes clear, is now his everyday life. Does he ever still feel that buzz, though? The one he did when his father lifted him over the school fence, or when he ran out of school to climb into the car for his first training session at Barcelona? Is it possible to still love football that much, and in that way, when it has been your life for so long?
“It is hard,” he says, pausing and thinking for longer than he has at any point during the interview. “It is hard to enjoy it as much as you did sometimes because nowadays there’s so much pressure from everywhere, there’s so many things going on.
“But, sometimes, whether it’s in training or in a big match, you realise you’re not playing in the park anymore. You’re playing for a badge, you’re playing for a group of people, for fans, for a club so you know you have a responsibility on your shoulders…”
He grins again. The same massive grin that appeared when he spoke of climbing fences with his old man, of his grandmother’s commitment to fashion, of his first session at La Masia, and of when he told his agent he wanted to be an Arsenal player.