Would you fucking look at Héctor Bellerín? Not as a football fan, please: your lens is already warped by those blood feuds, of Hotspurs and Uniteds, and skewed too by way of actually knowing about footballing competency, of watching Match of the Day steamy with three or four bottles of strong lager, you on the sofa, supine, with the lights off for some reason, extending one hand into the blue darkness as Bellerín miscues a cross, again, shouting, insisting, to no one, here, that he is crap.
No. If you must look at Bellerín as a footballer, fine: he’s an explosively pacy La Masia-trained 23-year-old who is yet to hit the upper echelon of his potential, and as a right wing-back is ‘good’ to ‘very good’, as a right back proper is ‘OK’ to ‘could really learn how to tackle a bit better mate it would do my blood pressure a lot of good’, and as a right midfielder or even right winger – which I do not understand why he has not been transformed into, Gareth Bale-style, by either Uncle Unai or Mr Wenger – he is a gallon barrel of unfulfilled potential, sloshing up hard against the lid.
But to look at Héctor Bellerín as a footballer is to fundamentally misunderstand him. It is like judging a motorbike on its ability to flip pancakes, or a dog on its ability to put on gloves. Seeing Héctor Bellerín as a footballer – top-to-toe Puma training kit, slaloming through flat little warm-up cones, softly heading the ball to Rob Holding – is to misunderstand Bellerín on a level that is close to wilful. Héctor Bellerín isn’t a footballer. He’s a pure, unadulterated, crystalline vibe.
Bellerín has been this way for a while now: His Difficult Mullet Period, the era he spent growing his hair out from the standard Arsenal-issue high-and-tight to the long, Tarzanic locks he has now, ran between August 2016 to May 2017, and announced his arrival. Before that he was another Spanish kid who got some first team run-outs due to injury – a Jon Toral, a Fran Merida, an Ignasi Miquel – and could have gone either way, down various well-furrowed Arsenal paths: Crippled By Injury And Out For Two Years Before Winding Down At Mid-Range La Liga Teams; One Astonishing Season Followed By A £50 Million Move to Manchester; Underwhelming Birmingham City Loan Followed By, For Some Reason, A Six-Year Contract Extension; Carl Jenkinson’s Live-In Carer. Before he grew the hair, Bellerín was notable for a couple of post-match interviews, breathless from a low-round floodlit FA Cup win, speaking in some sort of delicious fusion of Cockney and Catalan, and that’s about it:
And then the hair came, and with it, a Samsonic transformation from ‘right-back nobody was really sure was actually a long-term replacement for even Matthieu Debuchy’ to ‘someone designed to give talkSPORT callers an instant-onset rage heart attack’: it was that, not a particular on-field exploit, that was the moment Héctor blipped above the football radar. Bellerín the player works in the shadow of Bellerín the vibe, because of two universal truths: Héctor Bellerín is cool, and; every single other footballer in the country – bar maybe Paul Pogba, literally no one else comes close – is fundamentally uncool.
Why is it that footballers are so, so, pathologically lame? There are cool athletes in every sport but ours. As when Daniel Sturridge was the Premier League’s reining hipster footballer , the theory is broadly the same: academy graduates, made at a pen-stroke phenomenally rich on the day of their 17th birthday, are arrested in a sort of perma-teen stasis. Imagine giving an ordinary teenager £30,000: he’s going to go to the nearest shopping mall and buy every possible Superdry outfit and JD Sports exclusive trainer, plus two iPads, a PlayStation, and a bag for his doomed girlfriend, then maybe some driving lessons and 15,000 Instagram followers. But give that teenager £30,000 a week, and you’ll see all that but on steroids: Selfridges shut-downs, BMW M5s, posing finger-to-finger with sad-eyebrowed Supreme resellers, tableside sizzle pan at Salt Bae’s steakhouse in Dubai, verified-tick eyes emoji on Emily Ratajkowski’s Instagram posts.
Premier League footballers are so often uncool because they’re locked into a period of cool where the pinnacle of taste is a £300 snapback, or having your own logo, or paying a videographer to follow you with a drone, and they never dribble past that. It’s not like they ever sit and read a book, or get slightly too high while listening alone to an Arctic Monkeys record, or get aired 50 consecutive times on Tinder, or whatever other formatives traumas that made you cool, or even me. They are basically constantly locked in a race with each other to see who can get the most possible frays in their eight-grand jeans. Footballer cool is an illusion: yes, being able to nutmeg Robert Huth at speed on a football pitch is objectively cool. But see Luke Shaw walking around miserable in Off-White to know that none of that matters.
So in that, Bellerín bucks the trend. Because, I mean:
That’s a fashion week outfit. That’s a background-of-a-Bella-Hadid-Instagram-post outfit. That’s an outfit purely designed to flex. Footballers in civilian recline normally narrow down to two distinct outfit themes: an immaculately cut not-club-badged tracksuit (‘Pick You Up At Nando’s’ steez), or some sort of studded oversized T-shirt and wide-brim hat combo that makes them look like they’re about to cameo in a Logan Paul video doing a waggling bullhorn sign with their outstretched fingers before throwing a dwarf out of a window. No footballer ever gets dressed, is what I’m saying, which is baffling: they are, all of them, drilled down to the perfect muscular-lean shop mannequin body shape that should make them all natural clothes horses, but more often makes them look like teenagers cosplaying as three-phone drug dealers. Héctor in the trenchcoat, though. Héctor in the Burberry scarf. Héctor with the beanie hat on, rolled down firm over a luscious ponytail, Héctor with the continental goatee looking like a gothic portrait on an ancient shagger viscount. Héctor in those absolutely microscopic Matrix-themed sunglasses. Héctor Bellerín has your girlfriend’s number on your phone before she even met him, before she even had the chance to write it on his napkin: he just had it. Imagine Phil Jones dressing like this. He’d look like a deli ham having a panic attack.
Football is a special game because it’s played in a very firm green realm on the pitch – 22 men, one referee, a halfway line and two goals – with simple binary results of Win, Lose or Draw, but it’s also simultaneously played in the spectral parallel universe of what if: that’s where football thrives, in pub chat hypothetics long after the final whistle blasted. What if Kane had made that pass in the final third? What if Hazard finished his dinner? What if that red was given as a yellow, or that penalty never went in? We discuss the ebbs and flows of the game as if certain taps could be reached back to and turned on: what if the Lampard goal went in, what if Robbie Keane never ate a lasagne, what if that owl never shat in Ashley Young’s mouth? What if Eric Cantona stayed at Leeds? What if Baggio scored his penalty? What if that barely-there pass never made it to Aguero against QPR? What then?
It can go that way with players’ individual journeys, too. Every decision they make from about the age of 12 is poised towards a professional career, and any jag outside of the PG-rated clean-eating wholesomeness of that can lead to disaster: Balotelli, a hot cauldron of potential at City, rendered now a sort of footballing nomad after that time he bought two Vespas and a trampoline; Diaby, crushed tragically by an amateur tackle; Dele Alli’s never really been the same since that blowjob. Flip the tape, and see how the game rewards internal blandness: James Milner, a ploddingly robotic human embodiment of the term ‘neat and tidy’, has never touched alcohol in his life, and I genuinely think that, as a result, he’ll still be going a bit pink and skidding into slide tackles that get all grass on his forehead in the centre of the Liverpool midfield for 30 more years. This is why so many footballers spend their downtime playing FIFA, or streaming themselves on Fortnite, or impregnating high school sweethearts on the thick grey carpets of their soulless Cheshire mansions: when all other notions of fun actively erode your chances of legendary success, there’s nothing else to do .
This is why Héctor’s off-field alter ego as a final-boss-level girlfriend stealer is so refreshing. The fashion is a part of it, yes – not quite a fuccboi, not quite a scum bro, not quite hypebeast, somewhere above and within all three, the purest form of a Dover St. Market queue jumper – because every part of it is so considered, so right: the tiny sunglasses; the hi-flash London Fashion Week appearances alongside Gully Guy Leo; the Zimmerman pyjamas; the trousers his mum made him; the fact that he managed to style out these fucking horrible Pumas in such a way that even they looked good. But it’s more than that: the veganism, the Oxford Union appearance, the time he spoke Spanish to Jeremy Corbyn so Piers Morgan couldn’t butt in. This video of him congratulating a boy on winning at darts. The time he invited a squirrel into his house.
Maybe I’m projecting, but Héctor Bellerín is the only pure boi left in football and I love him with my whole heart. Maybe I’m projecting, but he’s the only cool one left. Sometimes I find myself in a weird dark-room late-night fugue state, desperately typing out ‘LOVE YOU, MATE’ on his Instagram posts and clunkily deleting the letters back, one by one by one. In an era of identikit ‘@Nike athlete’ footballers who only Instagram carefully curated training photos and say absolutely nothing in post-match interviews, Bellerín is the only star who stands out, the only one you’d go to brunch with, the only one you’d trust to take your fit pic, the only footballer in the League you can imagine would let you have a go on his Raya account while he drives you to both to a smoothie lounge.
It’s rare an athlete’s presence outmuscles their on-pitch form, but Bellerín’s has and then some. And then we come back down to the parallel universes, the tiny minutiae decisions that led to this point. If he never grew his hair, where would he be now? If he never grew his hair, would he somehow be back at Watford? If he never grew his hair, would his very glimmering presence offend ‘4-4-2, Bovril and a divorce’ football dads in quite the same way? No, and that’s what makes him special: no, and that’s what makes him cool. Never change, Héctor Bellerín, and never abandon me for a dreadful and inevitable return to Barcelona. The League needs you as much as I do.
 It is still mostly true that Daniel Sturridge is a leading hipster footballer, but two things have happened in the intervening four years: i. recurring injury has gone through his body like piss through an ice cube, taking him from ‘leading goalscorer’ to ‘occasional West Brom loanee’ and; ii. he’s got into a long-term relationship and together they have adopted a dog that has its own Instagram account, about as serious as you can get together without marriage, meaning fitpics and throwing the peace sign up next to Drake has quietly been replaced by height-differential #CouplesGoals poses in a series of picturesque corridors and selfie videos where he walks a puppy while lipsyncing along to drill. Cool, yes, but in a different, dialed-down way.
 The pasta-and-a-smoothie-in-the-cryo-tank nature of modern football makes it ever more clear that Diego Maradona was the greatest man to ever play the game: to do what he did in his career was already astonishing, but add the context that he was near-perennially doing it through coke sweats really hammers home how truly gifted he was. Take the old ‘… but can he do it on a wet, windy night in Stoke?’ and apply it instead to Messi: yes, he’s good. But can he do it after an all-nighter spent smoking a cigar the size of a burrito? Can he do it while being mates with Fidel Castro?