Betis star Bellerín on fighting for social change and why players shouldn't 'stick to football'

Published on: 16 February 2024

In 2023, Héctor Bellerín signed a five-year deal at Real Betis, a club that aligns with the player's commitments to social and environmental initiatives. (Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

Most mornings Real Betis defender Héctor Bellerín leaves his home in the centre of Seville and cycles through the city's streets until he reaches Avenida Italia, rolling into training on his bike. Born in Barcelona, he moved to London at 18 -- you can hear it in his accent when he talks -- and lived in Lisbon, his career taking him from the Catalan giants to Arsenal and Sporting, but he always wanted to be here.

Inspired by his family, Betis was something he had to try at least once. Once he had, winning a Copa del Rey while on loan in 2022, he wanted to do it again. And so now he's back. Better still, he has found his place.

"My personal Betis story started years ago with my grandma," Bellerín says. "She was a massive Betis fan -- even more than my dad. Every Christmas I would get Betis presents or things that were green and white. Even if they didn't have a badge, she would convince me they were Betis presents. I had a big attachment to Betis through my relationship with my dad too and always dreamed that at least one time in my life I would play for this club. The opportunity came sooner than expected. Since the moment I arrived [on loan, in 2021-22] I knew I wanted this to be my home, so I'm happy to be on a long-term contract now. My dad went to Barcelona in search of love -- my mum lived there -- and I got back to where he is from so it is a beautiful story."

The connection has been greater and deeper than Bellerín imagined, and it goes beyond the game itself.

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"Every year that passes I enjoy it more when there's an energy and a connection between all the players," he says. "It's a space that's quite personal. How do you feel? How do you think you did? I am someone who finds that energy around me contagious. It's the synergy."

It's also there in the club's colours. "We're trying to be the greenest team in the world," insists the club's CEO Ramon Alarcon. "We're concerned about green washing, we want this to be genuine: we want to be a sustainable club."

And so Betis have committed to carbon compensation, put together new stadium and training ground projects guided by green ideals and pushed for recycling drives and shifts in transportation and match-going habits. Forever Green, they call it.

A football team, says Rafa Muela, the president of the club's foundation, can be "a platform to try to show the world, to facilitate change; a message of responsibility." And in Bellerín, they have found a partner: a shareholder at Forest Green Rovers who after the pandemic pledged to plant 3,000 trees for every goal that Arsenal scored.

"It's important for me personally to be part of a club that has a commitment, not just with sustainability but also with football fans, their community," Bellerín says. "For me, sustainability has always been a big thing. Forest Green Rovers have been doing that for a long time, and when you're then talking about a club that plays European competition and has 60,000 people coming to the stadium every weekend, the impact is even bigger. Betis is an example and I am proud of the club, how it influences and promotes this kind of behaviour through its foundation."

"Rafa and I have talked about these issues a lot," Bellerín says. "We are always in contact and willing to make whatever change we can. Betis have all sorts of projects, they ask opinions, ideas. They collaborate with Forest Green. And when I was here on loan I did some work with a foundation called Futbol Mas, which works with Betis. My girlfriend used to work there; we used to go to some of the poorest areas in suburban Sevilla, like Pino Montano and Torreblanca.

"One project that is still going and is beautiful is an example of what we're talking about. They would take kids after school and give them a couple of hours of football. But it was not just playing football; it was talking about relationships, emotions, feelings. Football was the connector between everyone, making those conversations easier to understand."

So, with football as the connector, here's a conversation with Bellerín on players' social responsibilities, green lifestyle, mental health and more.

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ESPN: What do you do on a personal level to promote sustainability?

Héctor Bellerín: Sustainability is something that I take into account for every single decision I make in my life. I use my bike for everything. I use public transport as much as I can. I recycle, which is easy but a lot of people don't do it.

When it comes to consuming, I always take my time. We are used to buying things in the moment, from impulse, but I take months before I make a purchase. That shows [me] if I really want something, if I really need something. I always look into it before I buy something to make sure I don't have to buy another one in the future.

I take my time: what's the best decision in terms of sustainability, for the planet, and as a consumer as well? There are many things we buy that we only use once. One of the greener things you can do is vote because that means you put someone in power that is going to put those green initiatives in place. Sometimes as consumers we feel a lot of blame, but it is also the state and the bigger companies that need to take responsibility because they are the ones that pollute. We have a great opportunity every time we vote to ensure that we can have a sustainable future.

ESPN: What can clubs do? And do you find resistance among fellow players?

Bellerín: Regardless of what position we hold, we all hold responsibility, and we can always make time to make good decisions. When creating certain habits requires friction, it becomes more difficult to bring change. That's why it's important that clubs push and promote these kinds of initiatives: because it makes it easier for players to follow. For a football club to be conscious of that, to put systems into place for fans, players and staff which make it easier for us all to have a greener lifestyle, is important and an inspiration.

A small example: if you have three different bins in every dressing room, you don't need to go looking for the right bin to recycle, it's already there. In sport, there are so many things that we do because of tradition: we get loads of planes, we wear a new shirt every game; I have voiced my view on that. There are things that we have done in our past that we need to adjust toward our future. It's not just in football; it's in the way we go on holiday, the way we travel.

At Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, if we went to Manchester or Liverpool, we went by train. Those are simple, cleaner options. I understand that if you play on the other side of Europe, planes are needed for the competition to function. Sometimes when you try to change something that has been done a certain way too quickly, it doesn't change at all. But just by promoting trains, taking a bus rather than flying ... This has to come from the top, it's not something that needs to fall only on clubs or players. We don't decide, we just go where the team manager tells us.

It is up to us as players, fans and teams, though, to demand those resources and the help we need to make change possible. It needs to be slow, organic, something we can all do to create a better future. It has to be a global initiative, coming from everyone -- football clubs, FAs, governments -- to make sure there is less waste in the products we use, the transport we use. We have to feel there is help from people at the top to make it easier at the bottom.

ESPN: You mention governing bodies, but FIFA have announced a World Cup that will be played in three different continents.

Bellerín: Every day [that passes] football is more about the margins, about the money, and less about the people that support it and the people that actually make football great. It is becoming more elitist by the day. Having it in three different continents makes it more difficult for fans to follow their national team, and I am critical of that.

I think that, with different competitions, we are losing the essence of what football truly is. We lose sight of the people that actually make football great -- the people who follow us, watch us every weekend. They are the people that we need to keep supporting to make football what it should be and needs to be.

ESPN: Does it hurt to see football driven by money?

Bellerín: It's definitely hard to see the game [like this]. One of the reasons why you came to love it is [being lost]. I just finished reading "Fever Pitch" by Nick Hornby. It's a book I wanted to read for a long time. You see how football was for fans back then, how people lived it. He finished writing it in '91 and you can already see such a big difference between then and now, with all these different competitions, with decisions being taken because of money, how it is drifting from what it once was.

I understand that football, like every industry, needs to modernise and change, but sometimes it doesn't need to go that far.

ESPN: You and your Betis teammates Aitor Ruibal and Borja Iglesias stand out for your willingness to speak up on social causes, but that's unusual. Why don't more players do it?

Bellerín: This is a question I ask myself all the time. I think football clubs have always wanted to protect players, especially in the past: 'don't talk about politics,' 'don't talk about this,' 'concentrate on football.' I understand that up to a point, that they try to protect younger players.

But as we get older and we can express our views, I think it is important to use the influence we have. It's not just football players -- it can be artists, any sort of person that has influence. We have a group of players here who have had these conversations with our teammates, who have had awkward conversations between us. We want to learn.

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We know that a lot of people, especially men, are scared of talking. Maybe because they are scared of being called hypocrites because in the past they had different opinions because of the way we have been raised or the way we have been educated. People who don't want change are very quick to point the finger, and call you a hypocrite. They think you can't be different now, a new person.

I have had that a lot. In the past, I used to buy loads of clothes. That doesn't mean I want to do that today. I want to change. I think there are a lot of people who want to change but they feel a bit scared of proposing that change because maybe their views in the past were not the same. And the internet today is quick to cancel people and is not very accepting of mistakes. I think that is one reason. Others will have different views. Some maybe think it is better not to voice their views. There could be many reasons.

But we're not scared, we want to voice our opinions, we want to show our personality: it's just the way we are. I am not trying to change the world when I say these things, I just give my opinion. There are a lot of people who probably think that I am wrong, they probably don't like what I say, but that won't stop me saying what I believe. And the ideal thing would be that those of us who don't think the same way as each other can still have those conversations.

Every day that is getting a bit harder. It's necessary for people to challenge the status quo and open new ways to [communicate]. It's important to have different kinds of influences for kids. Not all footballers need to drive massive cars or need to be so strong and so manly. There are loads of different kinds of examples out there and some of them are more relatable than the standards we have [set] in the past. We're happy to be part of that change.

ESPN: There's the classic line: 'stick to football.'

Bellerín: It's very funny. They only tell footballers to stick to football when footballers talk about something that is not too masculine. When footballers play PlayStation, when they drive fast cars, when we get drunk or whatever, they have nothing to say about that. But when Borja [Iglesias] painted his nails or when I go to a fashion show, that's when they question us. That's when [they claim that] whatever we do outside 'affects' our football.

That's something to think about: whether it's when we drift away from football [that prompts the 'stick to football' line] or when we drift away from that standard that so many people hold over us. That's something that I question myself a lot of the time. It's something that pisses me off. And not just because of that, but also because we are people. We are entitled to our own opinion.

Every single weekend we have a lot of people having an opinion on our game, and that's fine. I can be entitled to an opinion about other questions. We can both learn from that. Cutting that [conversation] off cuts out a lot of creativity, discussion, progress. We should be pushing for everyone we are interested in, not just football players, to be given the space to express themselves. Everyone I meet has something to teach me, and I think football players probably have something to teach other people.

ESPN: Another thing you have spoken out about is mental health. Where do you think we're at with mental health awareness in football?

Bellerín: For me, we're past the time of raising awareness. It's about time to do something. Here in Spain we have had an old teammate of mine, Victor Camarasa, who needed to take some time away from football because of mental health: he set a precedent. It happened to Ricky Rubio in basketball. It has happened in gymnastics. It has happened all over the world.

The life we live, people excuse it in the amount of money we get, but we travel a lot, we play a lot of games, we get battered in every game. I come home with knocks in my legs, I have had to have surgery, I have had concussion, everything. People say 'yeah, but you earn a lot of money.' Yeah, but that doesn't mean it's not hard.

Family life is difficult as a football player, the pressure is difficult as a football player. No one wants to talk about this because we earn a lot of money and they think that is an excuse for us to be treated like, I don't know, anything but human sometimes. I am always going to be on the side of the human, the footballer. From young we are exposed to this. It is no wonder that when we get to a certain age, it is hard for us to cope.

Every year there are more games, more pressure, players [have to be] better physically, better technically. We do more and more work, there is less time for us to take care of ourselves, to take care of our emotions, to take care of our families, to take care of our social lives or to even have a hobby. What is a hobby for a footballer? It is almost impossible to have one.

Mental health is very important and it starts by treating us as humans, away from how much we make. It's time to bring these conversations into the dressing room, to oblige clubs to have psychologists, to have hours in which to look after our mental health.

That also helps our football: everyone knows how important your mind is for your performance. We should all be aware of that and try to create an atmosphere that helps. The press is also a part of mental health for us footballers. You guys could be a bit better with footballers. We all know that headlines sell but it is all part of creating a healthier atmosphere for everyone and it's about making football a better sport, an even more beautiful sport than it already is.

Source: espn.co.uk

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