Before the politicking, the police raid and the kidnap, Leon Bailey was at home. Cassava Piece, a small, rundown neighbourhood in uptown Kingston, is not ordinarily the birthplace of professional footballers. An area where ambition and aspiration are plentiful, but the net often far too frayed to harness it. So for one of the most talented players in Jamaica’s history, the harshest challenge came first. Aged 14, together with his father and brothers, he had to leave.
It feels like a far-flung memory now, compared to the heights of German football and the glittering riches of the Champions League; against the stream of zeroes that saddle Bailey’s name in newspapers and gossip columns. The 22-year-old winger, who rejected approaches from Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool as a teenager before joining Bayer Leverkusen in 2017, is within reach of becoming one of the sport’s true superstars. But the pandemic has had a peculiar way of making us all pause and reflect. For a career path that already feels exhaustive – spanning six different countries, closer to a dozen teams on trial but is still somehow in its infancy – the last few months offered a rare chance to reflect on the thousands of miles journeyed.
“[During the lockdown] I had all my family there with me,” Bailey says, speaking from Leverkusen’s training ground ahead of the club’s fixture against Bayern Munich. “We had time to look back and see what’s going on, what we could reflect on all together as a family.
“For me, it was a challenge growing up in Cassava Piece. I could’ve gone to do the wrong stuff because some get carried away when you’re very young. To stay strong and stay focused from that age, it was something I knew was within me. I always said to my mum, ‘I’m never hungry once I’m playing football’. When it’s morning, I’d just leave and she wouldn’t see me again until the night. I knew if I focused on what I wanted in life, I could achieve it, and that’s what has been happening. Cassava Piece curved me into being this person.”
German football’s suspension was also, by Bailey’s own admission, a time for self-examination; to assess the stalling of a rise which at one stage felt unstoppable. Following a summer where he was among the most coveted players in Europe, the 2018/19 season was subdued by comparison, played out against the backdrop of a long-running dispute with the Jamaican Football Federation (JFF) that has stunted his international career. This year, a hamstring injury was followed by two red cards in the space of a month, and he is yet to complete a full match thus far. The break, as he puts it, allowed him to “reflect on what I need to do better or work harder on”.
To achieve that, he’s leaning back on those lessons learned before ever setting foot in Europe, ingrained by his adoptive father, Craig Butler, at the Phoenix All Stars Academy in Kingston, where children learn to kick barefoot and iron their clothes before ever playing a match. It was a Butler – a fiercely driven but controversial coach in the Caribbean, owing to an equally fractured relationship with the JFF – who spotted Bailey’s potential as an eight-year-old, took him in and cared for him. “[Craig] being at Phoenix and teaching us all what we needed to know before making the next step was so important,” he says. “Him being strict with us, we knew that it had a good meaning at the end of the day.
The belief in Bailey’s ability – then or now – has never wavered. But it’s the sacrifices, he says, that always provided the backbone for his success. In large part, it’s because there was never another option. When Butler quit his job in 2011 and bought his biological son, Kyle, and Bailey one-way tickets to Austria, they had already gambled everything on the future. “I wasn’t scared [to leave],” Bailey says. “We were excited as hell to actually experience what it was like being in a different country, a different climate and culture. Austria was some of the best and the toughest days for us, but we adapted well. That was the most important thing. The quicker you adapt, the quicker you elevate.”
They arrived with a single suitcase, surfed between hostels, and survived on tins of tuna. But when their best-laid plans unravelled, winding up at Genk in northern Belgium, Butler was “robbed, kidnapped and left in the desert” on a business trip in Mexico, leaving the boys to fend for themselves. When he finally re-emerged four months later, Butler’s residence application was twice rejected and the Belgian Labour Ministry raided Genk’s offices as part of their investigation. The family fled to rivals Standard Liege, but soon, with nowhere else to turn, Bailey found himself back in Cassava Piece. After a childhood spent in a constant chase of a singular dream, all he could do was sit still.
“[Craig] always had the confidence [that I would make it],” he says. “He knew what I was capable of from a very long time. [When we eventually returned to Europe] we already knew what was going to happen. We weren’t looking for somewhere to go. The interest was always there from since I was 15.” After coming close to joining Ajax, Bailey instead signed his first professional contract with Trencin in western Slovakia at 17 years old. Then, finally, shortly after his 18th birthday, he was legally able to return to Genk.
Now, he’s here, on the pedestal he always sought. A wunderkind of the Bundesliga and one of the most prized wingers in world football, on the brink of yet another chapter, when he’ll take the next “big, big step” to England or, perhaps, Spain. In those slower moments, when there’s finally time to think and rest on all that’s been overcome, the motivation is still the same as when he said his first goodbyes. “I wanted to be a leader for [the children in Cassava Piece],” he says. “I want to show them there’s always hope and possibility.”