Hector Bellerin is a man who refuses to sit still. Rather than get hung up on the biggest set-back of his career so far – an injury that kept him out of action for nine months – the 24-year-old set his focus on developing himself to be a better person during his time out of the game. The Spaniard has become one of society's most vocal athletes, using his platform to elevate discussion on the issues he believes in: racism in football, climate change and even the draconian Alabama abortion bill.
Bellerin has also gone in on the fashion industry. After appearing on Fashion Week front rows at shows from the likes of Liam Hodges, A-Cold-Wall* and Paria Farzaneh over the last few years, Hector donned a bright pink hoodie and shorts in one of the most landmark menswear shows of all time when he walked for Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton's SS20 show in Paris back in June. He didn’t stop there, however. Behind the scenes, Hector was working with 424’s Guillermo Andrade and helping the LA imprint become Arsenal’s new formalwear range partner. Heccy's been active.
It’s been a year of deep reflection and refocussing for the Catalan-meets-Cockney accented full back, who – despite not speaking English as his first language – speaks with more eloquence than the majority of his peers when we link up at the Call of Duty Mobile App launch, a game he’s spent a fair amount of his down time playing through the years.
Ready to get to work in a new set up under new manager Freddie Ljungberg – “a young guy, who just gets it” – we caught up with Hector Bellerin at the launch of the Call Of Duty Mobile App to get the inside track on his road to recovery, his movements in the world of menswear, and his fresh outlook on life after a year of self-reflection.
VERSUS: Your recovery from knee injury must have been the toughest time in your career so far. How did it feel to finally get back on the pitch?
Héctor Bellerín: It’s been a tough journey overall, but I also feel like it’s helped me in so many other ways. There’s still some situations in games where you can feel like you’re not quite there, and that’s tough, as you can only get that back by playing more. You need to go through those situations to get back to your best again, so you need to be patient.
There were a few situations recently where I know I wasn’t there and 100% sharp, but I need to play games knowing I’m not going to be at my absolute best…but I’m going to push through those situations, knowing that the experience helps me to get better.
Nine months out probably gave you a bit of time to play games like Call of Duty. The new Mobile app has brought back the legendary ‘Zombies’ mode. Did you ever used to play that back in the day?
Yeah man I actually did, I used to play it a lot more back then – I was obsessed. But the graphics are crazy on this app, I really didn’t expect them to be this good. I just played with Mesüt against Kieran and Rob…we didn’t actually do that well, I was a bit rusty! I’m now just really productive with my time, and gaming occasionally is a good way to connect with friends, so I definitely spend some time doing that too.
What else did you get up to in your time off? Did you have a lot of time to reflect on things while you were out?
The most important thing for me was spending time off with my family. I usually don’t get to spend more than two weeks in Spain in the summer, but with the injury, I spent two months of my recovery with them there. I hadn’t spent any time there since I was like 16, so I was really grateful to get the time to do that. As a footballer, you don’t really have the time to appreciate things like this, or what you’re actually doing for a living. You’re always focussing on the next game, the next competition, the next training session…even if you play well, or play badly, you can never really dwell on it for too long. I feel like having the time to reflect on it all was important for me as I’ve been able to savour what I’m actually doing week in and week out.
You’ve also been doing your bit by promoting awareness around causes you believe in, fighting climate change especially. Do you think footballers should be doing more to spread messages around the environment and sustainability?
People should be spreading awareness about the things that they care about. I don’t expect everyone to do it the same way that I do, but there’s always going to be something out there that you want to shout about.
Raheem has been doing that and changing the conversation on racism in the game – he’s shifting the narrative. I think that shows that if you care, no matter what the subject is, you should speak out about it as it helps society move forward.
On the subject of Raheem, he’s someone who has come out in support of Labour in the past and urged people to vote in the General Election – do you think footballers should use their platform to encourage political engagement?
I think they should. Look at what Stormzy put the other day on his Instagram – that was a really powerful message he put across. He talks about what he cares about earnestly and that’s incredibly moving. If there are young people out there who never thought about voting, and they see that Stormzy putting out things like that, they’re going to be motivated to vote.
He’s got people who probably aren’t interested in politics involved in it again and got rid of some of the apathy that was there before. Young people are probably researching politics more because of him – and that for me is just putting your influence to good use. That’s what big platforms should be used for.
“Look at what Stormzy put the other day on his Instagram – he’s got people who probably aren’t interested in politics involved in it again.”
Raheem also put you on to the new Krept and Konan bar from “Goat Level” that shouts you out – did you rate it?
Yeah man, I did! I first heard it on Raheem’s Instagram story and I was instantly like “this is cold” – shout out Krept and Konan man, I’ve met them a couple times.
Are you feeling the new wave of UK rap at the moment, with the likes of D Block Europe, Headie One and Kojey Radical all coming through, there’s a lot of different sounds coming out of the UK at the moment…
You know what, I’ve actually started gravitating away from hip-hop at the moment. I grew up as a lover of hip-hop – I was a proper hip-hop head growing up – but now I’m getting really into my indie stuff. I listen to a lot of R&B too, and had a big reggaeton phase for a bit. I listen to a bit of everything to be honest. But the UK scene has been popping for a minute, and shout out those guys you mentioned.
“The 424 collaboration is one of the things that I’ve been most proud of, ever.”
You’ve also used the time out to develop yourself in other areas of life. The 424 formal wear collaboration between Guillermo and Arsenal which you helped oversee was something special. How did it feel seeing that come together and are you proud of how it all turned out?
That collaboration is one of the things that I’ve been most proud of, ever. During my injury I was constantly thinking, “what can I be doing to make the most of my time?” I knew that the club didn’t have a formal suit sponsor for the next season, and having met Guillermo a couple of times before, I knew how much he loves football, and wanted to get involved in any way he can…you’ve probably seen the 424 billboards he was putting up at Palace games.
I knew we needed to come up with the right way of getting involved. I asked him, “you’ve made suits before, right?” and he said yeah…once I told him about the idea of working as the club’s formalwear partner, he didn’t even think twice! He didn’t care about budget, where he was going to get the suits from, how he would get the suits from Italy to his workshop in LA, to here…all of that. He just wanted to do it – he said, “mate, if they are open to it, I’m on it!”
So we had some meetings, everything got agreed, and we took it from there. It all got done in three or four months – which is a crazy turnaround for this sort of thing. I then went to see him in Milan, he came to London, we had designing sessions together, and then everything ended up turning out really well. The response has been amazing, and me and Guillermo were just really happy to bring it into the world.
Another thing you managed to do was walk for Louis Vuitton when you linked up with Virgil out in Paris…how did that link up come about?
So Virgil hit up my friend, and my friend called me saying “would you ever want to get on the catwalk for LV?”, and I was like “yeah, let’s do it”. I was recovering out in Greece at the time, but I still thought “I’ve got to get to Paris and do it”…it was just such a massive opportunity.
I was actually really nervous about it! It’s something I’d never even considered doing so when I actually got there and was getting ready, the nerves really hit me. I always thought because of my height I would never be that guy, so to do it was crazy for me. It was one of those things that made me really feel alive.
Did it feel similar to walking out of the tunnel on match days?
In some ways it had a resemblance, but for me it was more the moment, the experience and the chance to meet likeminded people I was sharing the experience with. The fact it was for Virgil and for Louis Vuitton, one of the biggest houses in the world, I knew I had to say yes. If it was for anyone else, it would’ve been different.
“Walking for Virgil and Louis Vuitton was one of those things that made me really feel alive.”
I saw that you recently linked up with Classic Football Shirts at their new Poland Street store with Vuj and Zola. How was that event?
Yeah it was great man, they showed me a variety of shirts that I can’t even remember wearing down the years! Meeting Zola down there was cool too. Zola was one of the first-ever coaches from my time at Watford, and he’s someone that is always looking out for me. We have a really good relationship, and he always says he watches my games. They actually brought out an 89-90 Betis shirt – the team my dad supports, which was a nice touch.
If you could pick a ‘Desert Island Shirt’, what would it be?
Any with the JVC logo on. I actually think sometimes the partner makes the shirt look sick. Arsenal have had some sick sponsors in the past too, the Dreamcast and Sega days…just iconic jerseys.
What do you think of teams like PSG and now Juventus collaborating with non-football brands like Jordan and Palace? Do you think we’re going to see more of that sort of thing in future?
The Palace and Juve collab was really cool. I think for me, I’ve always said football and fashion are two of the biggest industries in the world, so it just makes sense that the worlds should collide and collaborate together. I know people have tried to do it in the past and it hasn’t really worked out, but we’re now getting to a point where it’s happening more and more, and the results are better.
Virgil did his Off-White x Nike Football stuff, PSG linked up with Jordan and now Palace and adidas is the most recent iteration of this. Making the pieces a bit rarer, and giving them that limited-edition feel is cool. But yeah, I really love the Palace and Juve shirt collaboration – hopefully we can have our own collaboration with them at Arsenal soon!
“I really love the Palace and Juve shirt collaboration – hopefully we can have our own collaboration with them at Arsenal soon too.”
I remember speaking to you with Reiss and Ainsley the last time we spoke, and there have been a new wave of young Gunners coming through and showing that they can do bits like Saka, Martinelli and Balogun. How much is seeing these guys make an impact having on the more senior players, and is there an excitement about the future if the club?
There’s definitely excitement there. I was one of these guys myself. I’ve been through the situations they’re going into now, and the way that they’re handling it is incredible. Martinelli has scored so many goals in the few games he’s played and looks really sharp. It’s a credit to him to get out there in a new country and do what he’s doing.
Then having players like Reiss and Ainsley – who has a good amount of appearances for us – just showcases how good the academy is here. Our future is important and it’s important for the fans to have something to look forward to going forward too, especially as there are guys making it from the fans’ own hometown.
What are you targeting for the rest of the season with Arsenal?
Right now it’s pretty obvious we’re not going through the best of times. For us, we need to focus on the next games coming, build the confidence up, and get some more wins under our belt. We have the team and manager there to be successful; we just need to put our minds to it and deliver results for the fans and get the crowd behind us again.