This story first appeared in the March 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine. 


Joel Campbell is on the front of the March magazine
Joel Campbell is on the front of the March magazine

Close Up: Campbell
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No player had yet missed and, given that this was Costa Rica's second last penalty of the five, it was a hugely demanding situation for a player then only 22 years of age to be put in.

There were also the stakes, only adding to all that. Costa Rica had never been to the quarter-finals of a World Cup, so that date was either going to go down in history - or it was going to be one of the worst nights of Campbell’s nascent career. He was never thinking that way, though.

In fact, if there were any nerves, he was actually enjoying them. A moment like that - the player says as he sits in the quieter surrounds of London Colney a year and a half on - is what he was born to do.

“I’ve always loved hitting penalties,” Campbell explains. “To have those nerves of hitting a penalty in the World Cup, for me, it’s nice nerves. I liked it. It was good. I hit the penalty and we eventually went through. 

Joel Campbell
Joel Campbell

 “For some people, it’s fear, yeah, but, for me, it’s a good fear. It’s a fear I like to have. Those butterflies in your stomach to hit a penalty in the World Cup, it’s a responsibility you have to have. It gives you strength. It gives you the urge to hit those penalties.

“For me, football is a passion. Every match, to have those feelings and play in front a full stadium, it’s a dream. Every match, I treat it to enjoy it.”

It is also a big part of the mentality that meant, despite a relatively slow start to his Arsenal career, Campbell never had any doubt that he would make it at the club.

Over four years after arriving at London Colney, and after four different loans to clubs in three different countries - Lorient, Real Betis, Olympiakos and Villarreal - Campbell is finally a regular starter, and has offered real impact in his games so far. He always felt this was within him.

“I always had confidence in my capability as player,” the 23-year-old says. “Yes, I had a difficult route here, but… when I got this opportunity this season after four years, I was ready for it, to play for Arsenal.

“I knew why I was here. I knew I had the capability to be a top player, and I work hard every day to make it happen.”

French football is a little physical, more tactical, a lot of strong players. Spanish football is very technical, a lot of quality. Greek football isn’t as strong as those but Olympiacos is a team who always expect to win so we played with pressure to win every game. For me it was something very good and I think, what I am now, I owe it to those experiences in Villarreal, Betis, Olympiacos and Lorient

Joel Campbell

He still hasn’t had a moment when he has thought he has “arrived”, despite scoring three goals for Arsenal, but that is not down to any reticence or hesitation.

“No, because I always want more, I always want to go higher, and to achieve more and grow as a player.”

When you hear words like that from Campbell, it is abundantly clear he has a lot of drive and ambition, but you wouldn't necessarily guess that from his friendly and calm demeanour.

He is the quiet man willing to generate noise in the right way - on the pitch. Campbell describes the city he comes from, Costa Rican capital San Jose, as “relaxed” and he seems the perfect product of that.

His expressive football also seems the perfect product of what he describes as a technical but tenacious football culture.

“I lived in the city, a relaxed city, where there’s a lot to do. I used to go to the cinema and play cards a lot but, well, football took up so much of my time. I dedicated myself to football and being as professional as possible.

“I played in the street, always. That’s where I learned the basics of football. With my mates in the street, I learned everything.”

Campbell does deny a famous story about his background from one of his former managers, though. Former Costa Rica manager Ricardo La Volpe said in 2011, after the then teenager’s first international call-up, that he discovered Campbell in the street “playing with cans”.

The player says this isn’t true, but does agree with his current club manager on one other big point.

Arsène Wenger has talked a lot in the last few years about how the street football of young players in South America and Central America has given them the battling qualities increasingly absent in more sanitised European youth coaching, and Campbell does feel that helped his game.

“You learn a lot in the street that helps you on professional pitches,” he says. “The type of fighting, to win the ball, to not have fear of things. Because, well, in the street, you have to play against lads far bigger than you and things like that. That does give you an advantage in many things.”

Playing and competing with players much older than him has been something Campbell has got used to, and has ensured he’s had the unique experience of turning out alongside some boyhood heroes too. His eyes widen as he discusses players he looked up to - and one of them was naturally an Arsenal legend.

“Well for me, the player I looked up to most was Ronaldo of Brazil, and Ronaldino too. [Thierry] Henry as well. I loved looking at how they played. I tried to take something off all the players I watched, all the good things I saw. I didn’t copy but, if I saw something positive they did, I’d try and learn.

Joel Campbell
Joel Campbell 

“In Costa Rica, it was [Paulo] Wanchope, Hernan Medford, but my favourite was Alonso Solis. He was a forward but one who liked to roam. He loved the creative game, and there was so much fantasy to his play. I liked him a lot and got to play one year with him [at Deportivo Saprissa].

“It’s something nice I have a good relationship with him. He came to watch me against Chelsea. I also loved Javier Saviola. My father bought me his shirt and all that, and then I ended up playing with him at Olympiacos. I told him he was one of my favourites when I was younger. It was great to play there, with him. He's a great person.

“He treated me very well. I learned off him in training, because he was a player to learn off.”

By the end of that 2013/14 season with Olympiacos, Campbell would move onto another level at the World Cup in Brazil. He was always ahead of schedule in that regard, earning his first call-up at the age of 18. In that he almost personifies a country that has always overachieved too - especially in 2014 itself.

They were one of the sensations of the tournament, defying expectation to first get out of a hugely difficult group and then take Netherlands to another shoot-out in the quarter-final.

Campbell can vividly remember the carnival atmosphere around San Jose when the country qualified for the World Cups in 2002 and 2006, which made it even more special to then be a part of something even bigger as professional.

“The atmosphere in 2002, when I was 10, was very good because we played very well in qualifiers and we did very well in the tournament, like in 2006 but, well, because it was Japan and Korea, the matches were all at three in the morning, so everyone got up to watch the games. It was lovely.

“Football in Costa Rica is a passion, the most important sport. The country stops when the team plays in a World Cup.” He played a huge part in stopping it in 2014. Campbell scored the goal that set them on their way, the first goal of a historic campaign, and one that just happened to be the key equaliser in their opening 3-1 win against Uruguay.

That ultimately meant they topped the group of death - so impressively eliminating England and Italy along the way - and then meant he was involved in that fateful shoot-out with Greece in the second round.

Campbell on progress
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“Yes, for me, to go to a World Cup was a dream,” Campbell grins. “I always wanted to. Now I’ve been there, I wouldn’t change it for anything.

“You don’t really think about it while you’re there but, to be in Brazil, I was so proud, really, to complete a dream. The greats have played in the World Cup. To be able to say you’ve played in a World Cup is something else.

“It was beautiful. We started losing against Uruguay, but the team had a lot of confidence in what we could do. I was concentrated on the match. When the match finishes, that’s when you think about it. The goal was something special. My whole family were there, my parents, my two sisters, my older brother. My girlfriend was pregnant… I did the [dummy] celebration! It was magnificent."

It was also a surprise to the world - but not to Campbell or his teammates.

"The truth is we believed we could win, that we could qualify [for the second round] in first place, which was important because we were in the group of death with three previous champions of the world. It was something else.”

He also knew they had something else a lot of teams didn’t have either: spirit, as well as cohesion and confidence.

“We knew the players we had. We knew the work we’d been doing. Obviously, the people didn’t have that confidence because, to see the group and the names in it, it’s normal that people think Italy and England or Uruguay would get through. We didn’t think that. Football is like that. It can throw up those surprises.”

Despite his supreme performances in Brazil, there was a sense Campbell still wasn’t quite ready for Arsenal. He went on one more loan to Villarreal, but feels each of those moves helped complete him as a player, to make him more rounded.

“For me, they were four special seasons because I learned a lot. I experienced different cultures, different lifestyles, different ways of playing and that made me a more assured person.

"French football is a little physical, more tactical, a lot of strong players. Spanish football is very technical, a lot of quality. Greek football isn’t as strong as those but Olympiacos is a team who always expect to win so we played with pressure to win every game.

Joel Campbell
Joel Campbell 

“For me it was something very good and I think, what I am now, I owe it to those experiences in Villarreal, Betis, Olympiacos, Lorient. Those experiences have made me the person I am.”

Now, he has fully adjusted to life in London too, helped by his girlfriend and young daughter - the subject of that dummy "chupeta" celebration.

“They make it much easier to adapt. I’m very happy. I have adjusted. The biggest thing is the climate, that took a bit to get used to.

"With the help of my girlfriend and daughter, it makes it easier. We go out to eat, we go to restaurants or go to the house of a teammate.

"We do a lot, and it’s now a lot easier, but I’m also someone who likes to stay in. I spend a lot of time at home with my girlfriend and daughter. As long as I’m playing football, I’m happy.”

He looks happy on the pitch, but insists that is not down to any transformation in his game.

“Nothing changed,” he insists. “I think I’ve just had the opportunity in various match, I’ve had the confidence to do things well.

We are Arsenal, and Arsenal is a team that always fights for trophies. We’ll fight until the end

Joel Campbell

Campbell also believes the camaraderie around the squad has helped, even if he admits his decent English is still limited.

“Obviously because of the language I spend most time with the Spanish-speaking players, like [David] Ospina, like Alexis [Alexis Sanchez]… it’s easier. But I have great communication with everyone, great jokes with everyone. The team is like a family, and I think that can be seen on the pitch.”

He is one of many attackers to have enjoyed the vision of Mesut Ozil, and enthuses about the perfect way the playmaker can pick out a run.

“Mesut has so much quality that, when you go to make a move, he always makes the pass at just the right time. But we have great players right though the team, so many players with quality. It’s easier for all us!”

Campbell’s favourite moment in an Arsenal shirt so far, though, was when he provided a crucial assist - in the 3-0 win away to Olympiacos that secured qualification for the Champions League last 16.

Of course, it greatly helped that match did not just see the 23-year-old bring the attack together with a fine pass. It also brought so many strands of his career together, given the affection he had for the Greek side - even if it meant eliminating them.

“The match against Olympiacos was my favourite moment. I had great memories of Olympiacos. They’re a team I have a lot of affection for, for the support they gave me. It was great to play there. I played an assist, we needed to win by two and won by three. It was a great game for us.

“It’s not easy to play in Greece and it was natural people had doubts about us before that game but we had confidence in ourselves.”

That applies to the remainder of the season too. Campbell has confidence in himself to achieve more, and in the team do something special.

“We are Arsenal, and Arsenal is a team that always fights for trophies. We’ll fight until the end. The important thing is to try and win all you can and we’re on that road.”

There can be no doubting Campbell’s willingness to seize the occasion. He may seem quiet, but he’s ready to make a lot of noise. 

Joel Campbell and Gabriel
Joel Campbell and Gabriel

Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to as the source
22 Mar 2016