How Hector Bellerin changed the way I looked at footballers by Yusuf
When I was younger my favourite footballer at Arsenal was Samir Nasri.
Before he sold his soul for the riches of Manchester City, Nasri started at Arsenal, was one of the most exciting young players in the Premier League, and was even voted French Footballer of the Year. What I loved so much about Nasri was his relatability. Samir Nasri was a diminutive footballer who focused more on his agility and technical quality than his physicality. For a young thirteen year old this was a massive inspiration for me and I often tried to imitate his game as much as I could whenever I had the chance to play. I found the early 2000s Arsenal sides harder to relate to because of the size and power in their profiles, something as a young teenager wasn’t apparent (and still isn’t!) for myself. Nasri being openly Muslim was also a massive part of his lure, but really his style of play was what drew me to him. For me, and I’m sure the case for many, I think what a player does on the pitch is what captures us and plays the biggest role in who we decide are our favourite players.
Hector Bellerin was the first player at Arsenal that completely inspired me for all his actions off the pitch. When Hector first joined Arsenal, I was in Year 11 and remember watching his interview for Arsenal Player alongside Jon Toral. At the time I was more excited to watch Toral play as his attributes seemed to be a mixture of Patrick Vieira and Cesc Fabregas, a combination that makes your mouth water. However, it was Bellerin that slowly became one of my favourite ever Arsenal players.
From the moment he became settled in the squad, and started breaking out of his shell, Bellerin always spoke his mind and openly used his platform to discuss any topic. From the Black Lives Matter movement, abortions, veganism or racism, Hector always spoke his opinion and implored other celebrities to do the same. Not only discussing global social issues, Bellerin was vocal on his passions away from football like fashion, photography and nature even when they were seen by many as unprofessional.
Footballers are often asked to live very structured lives. Training. Home. Training. Match day. If players are interested in other passions it’s to be kept behind closed doors, as any attention that’s not being put on their job is seen as a distraction. Bellerin never conformed to this archetype and discussed on his multiple platforms the importance of having an identity away from being just a footballer, and how valuable self-development and exploring yourself as a person, not only as an athlete, can be.
The truth is many footballers are allowed to express themselves away from football, if those passions conform to masculine ideas of what a man should be interested in. If you want to stream video games for five hours straight or play four hours of golf, that’s completely acceptable as it fits into our expectations of ‘masculine habits’, however if a footballer wants to dress in a more unconventional way to most western men, or models at Paris Fashion Week, it’s seen as unprofessional and disrespectful to your fans. Football has a toxic masculinity issue and struggles when players express themselves in a way that’s judged as ‘feminie’. Many in football deem Bellerin to be unprofessional, but in an industry that still allows Joey Barton to operate at a high level despite an assault charge against him, it’s clear outrage is being pointed in the wrong direction.
Hector has received horrific homophobic abuse simply for his hairstyle or fashion choices and his passions away from the pitch are provided as a reason for his (supposed) failure at Arsenal, rather than footballing reasons like a serious knee injury that effected his mobility or a change in tactics.
Despite this abuse from fans and pundits alike, Bellerin has never changed his stance and is still confidently expressing himself in his truest form. Seeing his development while I was in my late teens to now early twenties always acted as a motivation to me on the importance of standing up for what you believe even in an industry that discourages free thinking. Hector’s opinions on political and social issues largely resonated with me and I found many of my views being recognised on a public platform. Not by a social justice activist or a politician, but by a footballer who played for my team. Even if you didn’t agree with everything Bellerin said, just seeing someone so vocal in what they believe in is still motivational in learning to speak on your beliefs publicly.
Toxic masculinity is still an issue within football and in 2022 we still do not have a single openly gay footballer in the Premier League because of the abuse they will receive from simply being openly different. Whether that will change in the future is yet to be seen, but I like to believe Hector Bellerin at least opened the conversation to show you can still excel as a professional athlete even when who you are doesn’t conform to societal expectations of your profession. It’s okay to enjoy things that aren’t seen as ‘masculine’ and have multiple layers to your identity and it’s okay to share them with other people online.
When you watch truly great players play for your club you feel pride that they are yours, and even though Hector was an elite player at his best, I’ve never felt more proud watching someone at Arsenal even when they weren’t playing. Seeing Hector’s activism made me more interested in reading about veganism, learning about mental health or appreciating nature, none of these qualities I ever thought I would find in being a football fan.
Hector helped me in understanding and seeing footballers as people who have emotions and passions just like everyone else first, and as professional footballers secondary.
Although his time at Arsenal seems to be coming to a natural end, with the player and club seeming to want a divorce, his voice in helping to inspire people to be who they are and to stand up for what they believe in cannot be underestimated. For that and his excellent contributions on the pitch, I will always be grateful that Hector Bellerin played for The Arsenal.