If you’re searching for a sporting narrative chalked full of risk, drama, and determination to make it at the top, look no further than Jamaica’s Leon Bailey.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in August of 1992, Bailey began his youth career at the Phoenix All Stars Academy under his stepfather Craig Butler, who had ambitious plans for both Bailey and Kyle Butler — Bailey’s half-brother. The father-coach had his sights set on securing opportunities for his sons to become professional footballers, and the trio set out for Europe in 2011. They navigated unchartered territory — their first harsh winters as well as FIFA restrictions on players under the age of 18 — while making stops in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands.
Bailey began his youth development across in the pond with Austrian club FC Liefering before making the switch to Slovakian outfit Trencin. His golden opportunity arrived when he earned a spot in Genk’s youth setup in Belgium, but the boys’ European adventure took a dramatic turn when their father went missing for several months — reportedly kidnapped in Mexico — and Genk stepped in to make sure the pair were in good hands.
Bailey’s senior debut for Genk came when he was just 18 years of age, and he wasted no time in displaying the sort of potential that would soon earn a much bigger platform. He earned him the Young Footballer of the Year award in the Jupiter League at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season and this blistering strike against Rapid Wien in the Europa League was named the best goal of the tournament.
Primarily a left winger but able to play across the attack, Bailey’s undeniable speed, skill with the ball at his feet, and ability to find the back of the net soon caught the eye of scouts abroad, and he made the jump from Genk to the Bundesliga when he joined Bayer Leverkusen in 2017.
Bailey emerged as one of the brightest young talents in Germany and Europe for that matter in the 2017-18 season in which he registered nine goals and six assists in 30 league appearances. Standout performances against some of the league’s best and those sort of offensive numbers garnered interest from several top clubs across Europe, but he elected to stay put with the hopes of building on a successful season.
Despite his meteoric rise in Europe, Bailey only appeared once for his home nation in an exhibition U23 match in 2015 and later refused invitations to the senior side on several occasions. It appeared he was finally set to join the side in the fall of 2018, but he ultimately backed out amid reports that he was unhappy due to his brother’s exclusion from the team. Jamaica were given a significant boost in May of this year when news broke that Bailey had put the previous issues behind him and had pledged his international future to the island nation.
I promise to wear the colors black green and gold with honor, pride, and dignity while aiming to be a positive role model for kids with a dream. 🇯🇲 pic.twitter.com/zegKa7Phi9— Leon Bailey ✞ (@leonbailey) May 22, 2019
Jamaica’s rise in recent years will have likely made Bailey’s decision to commit that much easier. Aiming to make the final and even win the Gold Cup this summer was no far-fetched goal — the Reggae Boyz finished in second in both the 2015 and 2017 editions of the tournament — and coming up just short against the United States and Mexico provided plenty of ammunition this time around.
Bailey didn’t quite have the kind of tournament he would have hoped for, due in part to an ankle knock he suffered in the second match against Honduras, and Jamaica failed to make the final for the first time since 2013. However, he did produce several glimpses of the type of wing play that has made him one of Europe’s most coveted young talents, despite an admittedly disappointing 2018-19 campaign.
His deft chip into the box led to the opening goal against Honduras, and it was his clever play in tight space and inch-perfect cross to Shamar Nicholson that helped halve the deficit against the U.S. in the semifinal.
Goal Jamaica 🇯🇲 !!! Shamar Nicholson with the textbook header after a great ball from Leon Bailey! Jamaica cuts the lead in half, 2-1 in Nashville! #JAMvUSA #GoldCup2019 #ThisIsOurs @jff_football pic.twitter.com/pYOGwuKNRZ— Gold Cup 2019 (@GoldCup) July 4, 2019
The good news is that the 21-year-old has plenty of time to grow with the national team and has the opportunity to be an integral piece for Jamaica moving forward in the Nations League and the not-so-distant World Cup Qualifying campaign, in which they will look to make the tournament for the first time since 1998. He maintained that his first appearances for his home nation were a positive experience and can be a launchpad for bigger and better things.
“It was great, and it was a great experience to be there to experience so much different cities, cultures, and to play against different countries. For me, it was new and so the adaptation was a bit slow, but I got there,” Bailey told Jamaica newspaper The Gleaner. “This whole tournament was a learning experience for the whole team, and, as you can see, we have a team that is on the verge and gelling well together, and I see a team that has a lot of potential and is destined for greatness.”
Now, with Bailey primed for a bounce-back season and a considerable portion of their roster playing important roles for their respective MLS and USL clubs, Jamaica can continue to dream. Their League B venture in the Concacaf Nations League kicks off on September 6 against Antigua and Barbuda before they face off against Guyana and Aruba in Group B, and nothing short of winning the group and securing a spot in League A in the next edition of the competition will suffice.