The weird thing about Jude Bellingham, the teenage sensation establishing himself as one of the best footballers in the world, is that there was nothing surprising about the way he ran the game for England when they demolished Senegal in the last 16 of the World Cup on Sunday night.
There are no limits to the England midfielder’s prodigious talent. The 19-year-old from Stourbridge has the cockiness of Paul Gascoigne at Italia 90, the audacity of Michael Owen at the 1998 World Cup and the explosiveness of an 18-year-old Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004. Resistance is futile, even for those around the Borussia Dortmund star. “I don’t want to big up Jude Bellingham too much because he’s still young, but he’s one of the most gifted players I’ve ever seen,” Phil Foden said, trying and failing to play it cool as he discussed his teammate after the win against Senegal. “He’s going to be the best midfielder in the world.”
Too much? Unlikely. Bellingham, who joined Birmingham City’s academy when he was eight, has been destined for the top ever since he started playing football. His former coaches talk of a talent who was clearly head and shoulders above the other boys. “You’d see him playing and you’d say: ‘Yeah, that kid’s definitely got it,’” Phil Wooldridge told the BBC last month. “Since then he’s absolutely blossomed.”
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Bellingham was four when he was introduced to Wooldridge, who ran a company called PSI Sports. He joined in during children’s games run by Wooldridge and, so the story goes, ended up on the winning side most of the time. “He just excelled,” Wooldridge said.
It was clear that bigger tests were required. Bellingham’s father, Mark, a sergeant with West Midlands police and a prolific striker at amateur level, worked with Wooldridge on creating a youth team called Stourbridge Juniors. The progress was rapid. At Birmingham an academy coach, Mike Dodds, told Bellingham that he could be a new type of midfielder: a No 22. Why? “You can be a No 4, a No 8 and No 10,” Dodds said. “Someone who can do it all.”
Birmingham knew something special was happening. Bellingham became the club’s youngest player when he made his debut aged 16 years and 38 days, breaking a record held for 49 years by Trevor Francis. He played 44 times during his first year as a professional and did not look out of place. Bigger clubs came calling. Manchester United wanted Bellingham, but he was intrigued by the thought of joining Dortmund. Plenty of young English talents had thrived after moving to Germany. It was the perfect breeding ground, particularly as Bellingham had already seen Jadon Sancho flourish after swapping Manchester City for Dortmund.
“The way they integrate young players into the first-team squad is next level,” Bellingham told the Guardian after joining Dortmund for an initial £25m in the summer of 2020.
Bellingham was soon taking the Bundesliga by storm. The bemusement that greeted Birmingham’s decision to retire the No 22 shirt has faded. Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Real Madrid will try to sign Bellingham in the summer. Europe’s elite have all seen him dominate Champions League games for Dortmund, who know that an asking price of more than £100m is unlikely to deter suitors.
Whoever signs Bellingham will be getting a player with an elite mentality. He is possessed with eerie levels of self-belief. The Dortmund manager, Edin Terzic, calls Bellingham “the oldest 19-year-old I have ever seen”. England’s head coach, Gareth Southgate, talks about a kid who wants to start every game, take all the corners and captain the side.
It was not enough for Bellingham to become the youngest player of any nationality to feature during a European Championship when, aged 17 years and 349 days, he came off the bench during England’s victory over Croatia at Euro 2020.
Since then he has established himself as a key starter for Southgate’s side. He was outstanding when England beat Iran in their first game at the World Cup, opening the scoring with a beautiful header, but he was even better against Senegal. It was Bellingham who carried England when they went through a rocky period during the first half against the African champions. He whipped up the fans, urging them to make more noise. He won back possession. Eventually Bellingham drove through the Senegal defence and calmed England’s nerves by setting up the opening goal for Jordan Henderson.
It was ridiculous. At one stage Bellingham picked up Harry Kane and told the England captain to put a missed chance behind him. This is not normal teenage behaviour. English football loves its mavericks but Bellingham does not really fall into that category. He is on the path to superstardom but there is no sign of the fame going to his head. It is rare to see him lose his cool on the pitch. He focuses on making the team better and lets his talent create the headlines.
Pressure is something to embrace. Bellingham does not even accept the notion that it will be him versus the brilliant France forward Kylian Mbappé when England meet the world champions in the quarter-finals on Saturday. “I don’t know if it’s just me and him going toe-to-toe,” Bellingham said. “It’s just about playing my role in the team and trying to win the game.”
He makes it look and sound so simple.