Leon Bailey: King of The Club, Enigma of Jamaica

“The ball is my life, so I have to live it.” – Leon Bailey
Currently at the ever-so-familiar crossroads of choosing his national identity, Leon Bailey is a prodigy that everyone wants a piece of.
Leon Bailey
Art by Akshay Narwekar

First in line for the crown. With all the praise lavished on 21 year-old Leon Bailey over the past two years, undoubtedly the greatest is one given by fans in Germany who have labelled him the successor to Arjen Robben as the best right-winger in the Bundesliga. Bearing in mind that Leon Bailey was only 12 when Robben first joined Bayern Munich in 2009, and begun his monopoly of the right-wing, added to the fact that Bailey learnt his craft not in the academies of Europe, but rural Jamaica, it is a remarkable status placed upon the young winger. Yet in an era where instant and sometimes overstated praise is heaped upon footballers based on a 10 sec Twitter clip, it feels entirely justifiable, and more so, entirely correct, to have the vision of Bailey as the successor.  The throne is moving.

Bailey was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and his trip to European football was an arduous one. Along with adoptive father Craig Butler and his and son Kyle Butler, the trio travelled Europe in 2012 searching for a club to sign for. Eventually, they tried to stay in Belgium, but after a series of work permit issues, Bailey eventually signed for a club in Slovakia in 2015, AS Trencin. Yet, that was short-lived as Bailey eventually made his way back to Belgium in August 2015 after he had turned 18, and signed for KRC Genk, where stars such as Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois had once  earnt their stripes.

At Genk, his confidence was seemingly sky-high, telling Head Coach Peter Maes at the time, “in 3 years I want to be playing in a bigger competition than the Belgian League“. An explosive winger, Bailey’s ability to run past players with directness and pace was marvelled at in Belgium. He won their Young Player of The Year award in his first season at Genk, and scored six goals in 37 appearances. In his second season at the club, he was signed by Bayern Leverkusen in the winter transfer window for around 20m Euros, a massive fee for a 19 year old.

Despite not being an immediate starter for Leverkusen for the rest of the 2016/17 season, he became a mainstay in his first full season at the club, scoring 10 in his first 18 appearances, and becoming a social media sensation with clips of his goals. Although his form dipped for the rest of the season, he did manage 12 goals in total for the season, a very good feat for such a young player in a new league.

At the same time, Leon Bailey’s remarkable ascendency has launched a scramble for his national allegiance, with him being eligible for Jamaica, Belgium and surprisingly, there were rumours he could play for England owing to his grandparents having British citizenship. That resulted in social media rumours suggesting in May that he would be called up into Gareth’s Southgate’s World Cup squad for the Three Lions, before it was revealed that Bailey was ineligible as his grandparents were not born in England. The fact that most fans were excited by this story of Bailey playing for England shows how high his reputation has blossomed across Europe, and it seems inevitable that he will be in the Premier League or La Liga very soon.

Yet this excitement felt by European fans is not mutually shared by a lot of fans in his native Jamaica. Bailey played for the Jamaica Under-23 squad in 2015, but has yet to turn out for the senior national side, showing a distinct reluctance to wear the colours of the Reggae Boyz. There is a cynicism that Bailey is waiting to play for another country once he becomes a superstar, but for his part, Bailey has always cited that a lack or organisation within the Jamaican setup has been the stumbling block for him.

On the 9th of October 2018 it seemed that the golden child of Jamaican football was set to finally debut for the senior team; Bayern Leverkusen announced he had been called up to the squad for their upcoming game against the small Caribbean island of Bonaire, as part of the side’s CONCACAF Nations League campaign. Bailey flew to Jamaica. Fans rejoiced. Yet when the Jamaican Football Federation (JFF) announced their squad, Bailey’s name was nowhere to be seen. Had he flown to Jamaica on holiday and not actually for footballing reasons? Well, it turns out, it may as well have been a holiday, for an interview with newspaper “The Gleaner” in Jamaica revealed Bailey once again was not happy with the national team set-up. “I am here for one reason: to represent my country, but the JFF did not keep their end, once they are ready to do that I am willing to put on the national team jersey.”

This cryptic message was further elaborated on later in the interview when he would say; “Kyle’s snub by the JFF is a big part of it. I need players who can understand me”, referring to his younger brother, Kyle Butler, who currently plays his club football in Malta. “By this November, if they are willing to go with whatever we’ve asked of them, I’ll be ready to represent my country” Bailey would say, a remarkable statement, and one that fans have not taken to well, appearing to suggest the national team needs to meet his demands to pick his brother, who has so far not been deemed good enough by the federation to play for the national side.

Bailey will fly back to Leverkusen and bedazzle defences across German football once again, yet the story with Jamaica will continue when the next international window begins next month. The Jamaican National team has proven to be strong yet inconsistent in recent years, they made the final of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup after defeating Mexico in the semi-finals, yet struggled in the 2018 World Cup just qualifiers before that. Jamaica is desperate to make their first World Cup appearance since 1998 and Bailey is central to their hopes, so the creeping anxiety is understandable; he is carrying the hopes of a nation who have already lost one superstar born on their island (Raheem Sterling) to a European nation.

If Bailey did play for a nation not called Jamaica, he wouldn’t be breaking ground by any means. As society becomes more and more connected through globalisation, it has become a frequent occurrence to see players adopt another country. Diego Costa, who was born in Brazil but plays for Spain, being an example, as is Jorginho, who was also born in Brazil but plays for the Italian national side. Going further back, Podolski, Klose, Deco and Eusebio are other high profile international stars who have donned the shirts of countries which, though they were not born in, found other, stronger, connections with. Perhaps the case most similar to Bailey is that of former Man United player Adnan Januzaj, who had numerous nations allegedly courting him at one point, from Serbia to England to Albania, before deciding to play for his country of birth, Belgium. International football can be complex.

There is clearly an affinity for Bailey in Jamaica; Leverkusen games are broadcast on TV there so fans can glimpse their prodigal son, and Bailey has in previous interviews always reaffirmed his pride at being Jamaican. Yet the saga about his national team status is slowly taking some gloss off his status in Jamaica. Leon Bailey. A hero abroad, yet complicated character at home.

Santokie Nagulendran

Writes about football across the globe, which provides a therapeutic release from the emotional turmoil of supporting Tottenham Hotspur