Gibbs delves into his bitcoin fascination, acclimatising to the MLS, and a decade-old photo from his Arsenal days featuring ‘complete pioneer’ Arsene Wenger
My phone vibrates and a WhatsApp message from Kieran Gibbs appears on the screen. “By any chance are you able to do today?” the message reads. “Say in an hour? It’s the Bitcoin Conference in Miami this week so a lot going on!”
We have a Zoom interview scheduled for the following evening but the former England and Arsenal defender wants to chat now. I’m already in my pyjamas, about to put the kettle on for a cup of chamomile tea, but tonight works. So as night draws in here in England, Gibbs joins the call in shorts and t-shirt, headphones in both ears, glorious Miami sunshine beaming from the balcony over his shoulder.
What ensues is a bewildering, captivating, meandering, hour-long discussion about how his interest in cryptocurrency began with Hal Robson-Kanu and a laptop in the West Midlands, why he joined David Beckham’s MLS franchise Inter Miami, a defence of Arsène Wenger and his part in that picture 10 years ago of five young Arsenal players signing long-term contracts to become the “British core” meant to secure Arsenal’s future.
Gibbs was already an enthusiastic bitcoin supporter when he joined Inter Miami last summer, landing in the surprisingly “crypto friendly” city on America’s east coast. He recently became one of the first footballers to have half his monthly salary paid in bitcoin, made possible when XBTO became an Inter Miami sponsor. The crypto finance company converts the wages into bitcoin and sends it to his “hardware wallet”.
To discover the origin of Gibbs’s fascination with a digital asset world that confuses so many, he takes me back to the start, when he left Arsenal after 13 years to sign for West Bromwich Albion and was curious why Wales striker Robson-Kanu kept turning up at the training ground with a laptop, telling anyone who would listen about blockchains and decentralised finance.
Gibbs is aware of the combustible nature of the crypto debate and stresses he does not want to come across as though he is telling anyone what to do, that he sees it not as a get-rich-quick scheme but as a long-term investment he hopes becomes central to humanity’s future.
Nor does he have strong opinions on NFTs (non-fungible tokens), the digital assets proliferating in English football that fall under the crypto umbrella but, in his view, are entirely separate to cryptocurrencies.
Nor does he advocate any of the other cryptocurrencies available. Bitcoin was the first and “all roads lead to bitcoin”, he says.
“It’s just taking time for people to trust what this thing is,” he says, pausing often to choose words carefully. “We’re seeing something similar to, I think, what we saw with the internet. That took a while and now a lot of people would say you can’t survive without it. It’s part of our everyday lives. It’s the first thing we use when we get up in the morning, the last thing people use before they sleep.
“It’s what people use all day, every day. The curve of adoption feels similar with crypto to the internet. The early signs are it’s playing out similar to the adoption of a major revolutionary technology.”
When Gibbs landed in Miami a year ago, he attended the Bitcoin Conference, a cryptocurrency extravaganza that brings together thousands of enthusiasts. “I couldn’t believe the difference in mentality towards that whole space over here compared to the UK,” he says.
He’s met Michael Saylor a few times, the American entrepreneur whose MicroStrategy company owns more than a billion dollars of bitcoin. He hopes to meet Jack Mallers, chief executive of Strike, the bitcoin mobile payment app.
“He went to El Salvador to help them make bitcoin legal tender and educate people on how this thing works,” Gibbs says. “El Salvador has hundreds of thousands of people who work abroad and send money home. If you have something like bitcoin, which is borderless and pretty much free to transact between countries, hopefully they’ll find a lot of benefit using it.”
He adds: “There’s a lot of different people from all walks of life moving to Miami. And the crypto adoption is accelerating that. There’s a lot going on in this city. The mayor, Francis Suarez, is loved here. He’s innovative, and trying to reinvent the city. It makes it a very exciting place to be.”
Gibbs: Wenger an important figure in my life
Had you told Gibbs a decade ago that aged 32 he would have moved to Florida, be playing for a football team owned by Beckham, living in an apartment with sea views and receiving half his wages in digital currency, he may well have looked at you blankly.
It’s 10 years since Arsenal staged a photograph with Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Carl Jenkinson sat with pens poised over long-term contracts. In the background, manager Wenger stood like a proud father, describing the quintuple as the “British core” of the club’s future.
The 22-year-old Gibbs had probably never heard of bitcoin, created only four years earlier. Beckham was playing in the MLS, at LA Galaxy, the prospect of owning a club only one idea for retirement.
The picture was clearly meant as a statement, but Gibbs does not believe the players saw it that way, that while it was “nice to be a part of that”, they were individual footballers trying to carve a career who just happened to be signing contracts on the same day. Yet they remain close. Gibbs went to his first Arsenal game in five years in December, a guest in Wilshere’s box for the win against West Ham.
But Wenger’s Arsenal reinvention was perhaps not as successful as he would have hoped. They won three FA Cups, finished second once but never became regular Premier League title challengers again. The club struggled to keep up with the transfer and wage spending power of rivals inflated by the influx of billions from the owners of Chelsea and Manchester City.
By the time Wenger retired in 2018, a year after Gibbs left, a large section of the fanbase had turned on the Frenchman, successive top four finishes ridiculed rather than celebrated. And Gibbs is not sure that was fair.
“It showed when he left, right? It’s been a learning curve. It showed how tough it was. We used to get in a lot of trouble for just managing to finish in the top four every year. Which is strange, because the whole scope around it now is: who’s going to make the top four?
“We felt…not ashamed, but we all wanted to win. It just showed the difference even at that high level to go to the next level. We’ve not managed to make the top four since he left.
“Hopefully they can do it this year and use that as building blocks to compete for titles again. They look really good at the moment. It feels like they’ve got a new lease of life.”
Gibbs has not kept in touch with Wenger but wants to rekindle contact. “He was such an important figure in my life, as well as many other of the boys,” he says. “He was such an influential part of so many young players’ lives. I will always remember him for the great man that he is. He’s a complete pioneer, he’ll be remembered forever.”
When Gibbs’s contract came to an end after four years at West Brom, the full-back had always wanted to play abroad and the pandemic intensified that itch. “At that point in time you didn’t know what was round the corner. That was a real humbling experience for the world.”
He knew Beckham a little from when the former Manchester United midfielder trained with Arsenal to keep fit during the MLS off-season and, ahead of the move, spoke to Beckham, Jorge Mas, the US entrepreneur who co-owns the club, and manager Phil Neville. “The whole project, the fact it was a new club, excited me.”
Gibbs still misses London. He uses the half-hour drive to training to call friends and family. But he loves his new life – and a new culture of away travel. MLS clubs are so spread out that for away games they fly at least a few days in advance to acclimatise to the weather and time zones. “It’s wild, there are totally different temperatures. But you actually get a bit of time to see different parts of the US, which was another selling point.
“A month ago, if you played away at Montreal or Toronto or even further up north, New York, it was a totally different climate, totally different everything.
“You have to be really match fit and acclimatised to play here. Sometimes if you’ve got two away games you’ll go state to state.”
Yet even if life is good, Gibbs is not unaware the wider world around him is being ripped at the seams by war and pandemic. It’s in part what has fuelled his bitcoin obsession. “In a world of chaos it’s the only thing I can read about that gives me peace,” he says. “Bro, it’s so true. That’s how I feel about it: it gives me hope.”
With that, Gibbs hops off the call and heads out into the bright day, energised by the possibilities and potential it holds. And I go to bed.