Over the past couple of days, there has been widespread attention across social media regarding comments made by Hector Bellerin about Arsenal Fan TV during a speech he gave at the Oxford Union last month. Although I am not an Arsenal supporter, I was fortunate enough to be there in person at the talk, so I thought I would share some thoughts on the reaction which has seen Bellerin come in for a hefty amount of criticism in recent days (much of which has come from those involved with the AFTV channel).
For those not aware, the Oxford Union is a debating society which invites speakers from all kinds of different backgrounds to either take part in a debate (usually political), or to give a talk about their career and personal interests, as Bellerin did. The Union is separate from the University of Oxford, although the vast majority of its membership is from the university.
There have been many high-profile football speakers in recent years, including Rio Ferdinand, Clarence Seedorf, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Edwin van der Saar. Bellerin is unusual in this context, in that it is very rare for a current professional footballer to speak at these events- most likely because any vaguely controversial opinions they might share will quickly be pounced upon and plastered all over the internet, as has happened with Bellerin over the past week.
It is probably no coincidence, therefore, that a scheduled talk by Mesut Özil this month has recently been cancelled. The reason for the cancellation has not been made public, but it seems likely that it may well be in response to the recent reaction to Bellerin’s visit. Özil is an even higher-profile figure than Bellerin and it is easy to imagine the fallout should he have made any controversial comments of note.
The majority of the time, when interviewed in the public domain- such as the post-match interviews on Sky Sports and BT Sports- players are well versed in delivering bland, pre-programmed responses such that they will avoid criticism and scrutiny around their choice of words. Very rarely will a player offer their own in-depth opinions or analysis after a game, as they will be trained to deliver the usual platitudes such as “we’ll have to work on this in training next week”, “I’m happy to have scored, but the team’s victory comes first”, or “we just take each game as it comes” etc.
Talks at the Oxford Union, by contrast, offer a platform for footballers to speak openly about a range of issues to an audience of several hundred young people, the majority of whom are in their early 20s. They will be asked a series of questions in an interview format to begin with, ranging from their experiences within the sport, to more general issues beyond the footballing sphere, before audience members are invited to ask their own questions.
When Bellerin was asked about his opinions on Arsenal Fan TV, this was a question raised by an audience member, to which he responded that he feels it is “really wrong” for an enterprise to be profiting from the club’s failures, thus questioning whether such people can really claim to be fans.
He also went on to say that people are perfectly entitled to make money as they wish, and that he only values criticism coming from his coaches, but that he is aware of the highly reactionary and often highly critical nature of Arsenal Fan TV.
The first thing to say, is that Bellerin is correct in a sense. Arsenal Fan TV does attract the majority of its viewership when Arsenal lose. Fans from other clubs will quickly flock to watch the videos every time Arsenal suffer a poor result to watch a variety of notorious figures vent their frustrations, often in an amusing manner, in front of a camera.
Arsenal Fan TV does also make money from this, of course, although the vast majority of contributors are not paid to speak on the videos. It is a platform which allows fans to have a voice as an alternative to mainstream media, and is inherently more emotive and strongly opinionated than traditional forms of football coverage.
Where I, and many others, disagree with Bellerin, is when he suggests it’s difficult to call someone a fan if they partake in such a platform which benefits financially when Arsenal underperform. Those who appear on Arsenal Fan TV- and other fan TV channels- are, for the most part, loyal and committed supporters who are fully entitled to give their opinion on the club to which they devote so much time and money.
Arsenal Fan TV also features heavy praise for players and their performances when the team wins, of course.
Bellerin, however, is entitled to give his own opinion in the same way that fans can openly and heavily criticise his performances. From his perspective, as a professional footballer, he is far less likely to be made aware of clips when supporters praise him and the team, than he is when he performs poorly and the team loses.
His view, therefore, is not fully informed and is heavily shaped by the negative side of Arsenal Fan TV and he most likely sees it purely as a source of wild, over-reactive criticism and even abuse, which he admitted he will often be sent clips of after a bad performance.
What I find most interesting and disappointing, though, is the manner in which a small comment he made as part of a 40-minute talk, is seized upon in a way which brands him as rude, disrespectful and detached from supporters. Throughout his talk, Bellerin covered a whole range of topics, ranging from mental health (i.e. how difficult would it be for a high-profile professional footballer to reveal they suffered from depression), a discussion of racism in football (with reference to the abuse suffered by Liverpool youngster, Rhian Brewster, with whom he shares an agency), his charity work (including raising funds for the victims of the Grenfell disaster) and the Catalan independence movement.
He came across as a thoroughly intelligent and well-spoken individual who clearly has an enormous amount of humilty and awareness of his fortunate position in society, speaking with honesty and intellect about topics far beyond his own career in the game.
I was also able to meet Bellerin in person before the talk, and he was both thoroughly engaged and laid back- a very easy person to get along with and not remotely pretentious or disinterested, as some footballers can come across.
I asked him about his toughest opponents in the Premier League this season (Richarlison was his answer), his thoughts on Spain’s chances in the World Cup (he said to keep an eye out for Isco as the key player of the new generation) and his experience of facing Mo Salah twice this season, to which he emphatically stated that the Egyptian is the signing of the season.
It is reflective of a wider scepticism towards footballers in general- often characterised as greedy and detached from supporters- that Bellerin has been the target of such criticism for what was a tiny proportion of his talk, while the rest- some of which was thoroughly insightful on some really important issues- is hardly even touched upon and discarded as irrelevant, while fans project their anger in his direction, ignoring the entirety of the wider context in which he delivered such comments (which, ultimately, was just an honest opinion for which he was asked to give).