Leon Bailey: 10 things on Bayer Leverkusen's Jamaica-born flying winger
Leon Bailey's performances with Bayer Leverkusen have put him and Jamaica on the global football map in the same way his friend, Usain Bolt, took the island to the top of athletics. But what else is there to know about the jet-heeled winger?
1) Humble beginnings
Bailey was born in Cassava Piece, an underprivileged neighbourhood to the north of the Jamaican capital, Kingston, in August 1997. Yet as the player himself says, it is precisely that background that made him the man he is today.
"When I look back on my life in Cassava Piece it wasn't easy, but it wasn't bad either," he told Deutsche Welle. "It's an area that's poor but it turned me into somebody I never thought I'd become. I'm very street-smart, I can understand life in different aspects and I'm very grateful to have come through an environment like that."
And while the Caribbean nation is famed more for producing top-level athletes, Bailey only ever had eyes for football growing up: "Football chose me. Ever since I was born, all I wanted to do was kick everything – anything you put in front of me. I always tell people that I started in my moma's belly because since I came out I've just been kicking everything."
Watch: Bailey's magical skills and tricks
2) First steps
At the age of seven, Bailey joined the Phoenix All-Star Academy in Kingston, which was run by the man who would go on to become his adoptive father and agent, Craig Butler.
"He was the first person who started to get me thinking about football really seriously, to take it to a different level," Bailey recalled. "I saw that at a very young age, probably age nine. For somebody to be able to know what they want at that age is crazy."
3) European arrival
That drive led to Butler snr. taking a 12-year-old Bailey and another of his sons, Kyle Butler, to Europe on a one-way ticket with the aim of them becoming professional footballers. And while the bold move paid off – Butler also made it as a player and is currently at Austrian side LASK – it was far from plain sailing.
"We didn't have any experience of winter, nothing at all," Bailey said. "I remember we came to Europe with only one jacket. And we came during the winter time, in February, when it's really cold in Austria. We didn't have much money and lived on a budget. We didn't have so much money, so sometimes we just had tuna on bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner just to get through the day."
Furthermore, FIFA rules forbid clubs from signing non-EU players under 18, so there was no clear path for Bailey to get to the top. He eventually joined Slovak outfit Trencin in autumn 2014 before arriving at Genk in Belgium a year later. The winger made his top-flight debut when he was 18 and went on to contribute 15 goals and 21 assists in 77 competitive outings for the club.
4) Europa League Goal of the Competition winner
One of those goals proved to be a rather special one. In the 2016/17 UEFA Europa League – in which he incidentally earned a place in the official Team of the Group Stage – he netted the opener in a 3-2 defeat away to Rapid Vienna on 15 September 2016, which was later crowned as the Goal of the Competition.
That strike, a curling 25-yard shot into the top-left corner, received effusive praise from UEFA's technical panel that included Sir Alex Ferguson, Dejan Stankovic and Ioan Lupescu. They singled out his effort for its "high degree of difficulty of execution in this exceptional first-time strike that was both from distance and on the run."
Watch: From the archives - analysing Bailey, a defender’s worst nightmare
5) Leverkusen arrival
Famed as a club with a soft spot for nifty young attackers – just look at Kai Havertz and Julian Brandt in recent years – Leverkusen swooped to sign Bailey in January 2017. "He's got extraordinary pace, he's very skilful with the ball, and he will give further impetus to our attacking department," said Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Völler, a former World Cup winner who knows a good player when he sees one. "We are convinced that he will be a big gain for us."
After a few months of settling into his new surroundings, 'Chippy' (see below) lived up to those expectations and exploded onto the scene in 2017/18, registering nine goals and six assists to help Die Werkself finish fifth and qualify for the Europa League.
6) At home away from home
You might think that a Jamaican playing Europe might have difficulty acclimatising to life in Germany – particularly in light of the aforementioned differences in climate – but Bailey has never had any trouble in that regard.
"At the Phoenix Academy we learned home traits like how to wash, how to cook, how to iron our clothes," he said. "Because these things can make a player homesick. I've never been homesick once in all the time I've been in Europe."
Bailey's attention to detail even extends to his domestic routines. "Everything about his room is clean," his father told Deutsche Welle. "His underwear is neatly folded. Perfect. Everything has to be perfect. And he's still like that. I never had to tell him to spread his bed."
Watch: Bailey: From Jamaica to Bayern tormentor
Bailey is known as 'Chippy' to those closest to him, but where does the nickname come from? An affection for high-carb snacks? A fondness for chipping the ball over the goalkeeper? The answer, in fact, is none of the above.
"My dad gave me the name when we'd just started playing football," Bailey explained. "He said: 'You know, you look like Alvin from Alvin and the Chipmunks.' So everybody used to call me 'Alvin' or 'Chipmunk', until it just became 'Alvin' or 'Chipmunk', and from there it became 'Chippy'. So if someone calls me 'Chippy', you know they have been closely around my life."
8) The new Arjen Robben?
Left-footed, frighteningly quick, bedazzling with the ball at his feet, and a liking for cutting in from the wing to devastating effect. Sound familiar? No, we're not talking about Arjen Robben. Like the Bayern Munich legend, Bailey is able to play on either flank but has no doubt about where he prefers to play position is:
"I've always said my best position is on the right-hand side. I feel really happy out on the right. And when a player feels happy, he can make a lot happen. I think I can leave the defenders with more to think about. I have more options to go to the left or the right, so I think it's better for me."
9) Friends with Bolt
Given that they're both from Jamaica, quick on their feet and enjoy superstar status in their homeland, it was perhaps only natural that Bailey would befriend nine-time Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Usain Bolt.
“I would say we’re really, really close," Bailey said. "He’s been a friend of mine for a couple of years now. He’s teaching me a lot of things in life because he’s experienced. Of course, he’s a legend. To have somebody like that around you and to share that experience with you, it’s such a good feeling.
"As a young individual who probably or possibly will get to that level, it’s important that you understand what it all comes with from a very early stage. I think he's helped me a little bit with that too. He’s a great guy and a fun person to be around. He’s just a cool guy!”
Watch: Usain Bolt in Dortmund training!
10) Overdue international debut
Somewhat surprisingly given his sublime talents, Bailey did not make his senior international debut for Jamaica until 2019. He represented his country once at U23 level - scoring a free-kick against the Cayman Islands in March 2015 – but that was it for the subsequent four years, a hiatus he ascribed to "politics".
That all changed in summer 2019, however, when Bailey declared he would lace his boots for Jamaica at the CONCACAF 2019 Gold Cup. And in the Leverkusen winger’s first competitive game for his country, he did not disappoint. His chipped pass over the Honduran defence was the pass-to-assist for the opening goal in a 3-2 win over Honduras on 17 June.
"It's always been my dream to play [for Jamaica]," Bailey said. "Hopefully we can put Jamaica on the map globally and start competing at the highest level, maybe even the World Cup."
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