The young Spanish right-back is adapting to living in London almost as quickly as he covers ground on the pitch
Watching him in action, there is no doubt Hector Bellerin is very quick indeed. And that is just playing computer games. He is road testing the latest version of the shoot-em-up Call of Duty Black Ops III and his thumbs and fingers dart around the controller, his eyes flicking across the screen, picking out threat lurking in the shadows and dispatching it in a blur.
“As a footballer you have a lot of pressure. So for a few hours a day to get your mind off it, playing video games, it couldn’t be better,” he says with a smile.
Bellerin is speaking at an event in a swanky studio complex in Shoreditch. Outside men in beards swish past artisan bakeries on electric single wheeled scooters. Inside, young enthusiasts sit in front of a bank of screens immersed in a virtual world of insurgents and undercover scraps.
Bellerin looks entirely at home here, unselfconscious and wholehearted, battling online against all comers with the same unflinching commitment he shows when closing down a Premier League winger. “I’ve spent hours and hours playing this game,” he explains.
“I’ve played it since I first came to England. Emiliano Martinez who’s at Wolves now, when we were younger, we played against each other at it for hours, you know, ending up going to sleep at six in the morning after playing it.”
Bellerin, it is clear from just a short time in his company, is one of life’s enthusiasts, someone, moreover, who seizes opportunity whenever it presents itself. This, after all, is a young man who left his home town club Barcelona for foreign climes to broaden his experience aged just 16.
“A lot of people ask me this,” he says, when he is quizzed as to why he left behind the world’s greatest football club to head abroad. “Loads of things. I wasn’t just coming to England, I was coming to Arsenal, a team that likes to play the ball like Barca does. And the fact that Cesc [Fabregas] had come here before, had made the same journey so successfully was a big factor. But for me mainly it was a new experience. Sometimes the train comes and you either jump on it or not. And today I’m very happy that I jumped on board.”
There is no doubt he relishes the city where he now resides. He loves London’s restaurants, its fashions, its style. “There’s so many places to go. At the weekends, time off, I go to Covent Garden, walk down by the river, there’s so many people I’ve met. All the players are constantly saying: ‘I went to this new place you should try it’. I’m not going to say names, because then you book and I can’t get a table.”
Bellerin speaks like he plays: quickly. His English is extraordinarily adept, given that when he arrived in the country he had little more than a schoolboy splattering of the language. Now his conversation is full of the quirks and phrases of the modern young Londoner. “I remember, like, the first time I arrived and the driver started speaking to me and I’m thinking: this is not English like I learned at school. But now people don’t know I’m Spanish till I tell them. I think I adapted really quick to the country, the team, to the language as well.”
Quick is the word. Above all things – his defensive strength, his adaptability, his growing reading of the game – it is Bellerin’s speed that has drawn the attention. Especially when, last season, he was reportedly recorded in Arsenal’s sprint test as covering 40 metres quicker than Usain Bolt was travelling at that point when he won the 100-metre gold medal at the London Olympics.
“That day I was having a bit of banter with [Alex] Oxlade Chamberlain, he was telling me I wouldn’t be that quick, that he’d beat me easily. I said, listen, I’ll just do my run and see what happens. It was my first year in the first team squad. After I’d done it someone said: ‘Oh Hector, you’ve beaten Thierry Henry’s club record.’ I was like nah, I didn’t believe him. So I did it again and I beat the record again.”
His pace, he says, is put to the test every game he plays. “Every year there are more players who can give you trouble, more wingers, players more suited to the league. Whoever it is you need to be at your best. When I played against Liverpool, Raheem [Sterling] was a great battle, [Jefferson] Montero at Swansea, so many good wingers.”
This, he adds, is one of the reasons he so enjoys the English game: unlike in Spain where Barcelona could cruise for half their fixtures, here every match is freighted with danger. “I think that the things that are worth winning are the things that are hard. The fact that when you play even the bottom team in the table you have to work really hard for a win is a good thing, it doesn’t happen in other leagues. I think in England that makes it more real, that you have to fight hard. You have to be quick on your feet against everyone. Sometimes it works against you, but hey, that’s the beauty of football in England.”
Tomorrow he plays against Liverpool. He is hoping the defeat in Arsenal’s first home game of the season is no more than a blip and that the title campaign can be put back on track. Not that winning the league is a subject of discussion in the Emirates Stadium dressing room. “You know what? We don’t think about it,” he says. “We are focusing only on Liverpool. When we finish that we think about the next one. Get three points in the next game, then when we get to May we can look at the position and think about it then.”
Though he admits he would love to add another medal to the growing collection on his bedside table. “For me in my first season to actually win the FA Cup was something I wouldn’t have believed if they told me. From starting the season as probably the fourth right-back to starting in the final, for me that is some success. It is such a lovely trophy, too. When you come to this country and see how much respect the English players have for the FA Cup, they transmit that to you and make you want to win it, too.”
In order to win more he will continue working on everything, he says, including his speed. The fractional gains that are the reward for extra work, he adds, could be vital. “We just did the squad sprint test, but they didn’t tell us the numbers this time,” he says. “But I came first again, which was great!”
And with a wide grin, Bellerin sprints off once more to the computer screen, eager to get on with the business of seeing off bad guys.
Hector Bellerin was speaking at the Call of Duty: Black Ops III Beta launch on PlayStation 4. Pre-order Call of Duty: Black Ops III now.