Have England ever really had a player like the brilliant Jude Bellingham?

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Jude Bellingham;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Jude Bellingham</a> plays a pass while surrounded by three <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Serbia;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Serbia</a> players.</span><span>Photograph: Dave Shopland/Shutterstock</span>

With 28 minutes gone in Gelsenkirchen, Declan Rice headed a bouncing ball in the direction of Jude Bellingham, who waited and then did something extraordinary, arching his back and roundhouse‑pinging it across the pitch into the centre‑backs, with a sense in that moment of complete mastery of his craft, the day, this entire high‑stakes pursuit everyone else in here seems so anxious about.

It was the kind of pass you might attempt with a tennis ball against a classroom window, or while doing balloon keep-ups at Christmas; a pass to express the strange physical theatre of being in possession of such an excess of talent, even among the excessively talented.

The England fans yelled “Juuuude”, as they do now. And at times here there was a very clear sense of two games taking place simultaneously, twin dimensions bleeding into one another, Stranger Things does the European Championship.

Related: ‘He writes his own script’: Southgate delights in Jude Bellingham’s impact

On one hand there was Bellingham’s opening 45 minutes, during which he basically did everything.

And around this, like underlay beneath a collage, was the other game, England versus Serbia, during which everyone else got on with a slow-burn 0-0 over 90 minutes.

Luckily for England the final score was an aggregate of these overlapping events. England won because Bellingham won, and then because Marc Guéhi and John Stones defended skilfully. But the overall effect was like watching one man complete an immaculate 147 break, all clink and ping and perfect angles, while around him everyone else inside the snooker hall has an inconclusive mass brawl.

It was absurd at times how involved Bellingham was in that first half. This was like watching Rambo play football. It was like Alan Ball in extra time at Wembley. It was Super Hans accidentally running to Windsor. Rarely can one player have been so dominant, but found his team only 1-0 up, and precariously so.


What is his role here exactly, you wondered, as for 45 minutes Bellingham was a clogger, a flying centre-forward, an anchor, a ball carrier, a hyper-arrogant swagger‑star. More to the point, where are the other players?

There is of course plenty of time to fix these things. A 1-0 opening win against Serbia remains a perfect scoreline, and a fine low‑key tournament start. And these are always tough nights to see out.

The Gelsenkirchen stadium is a massive armadillo-like arena, crouched in the green fringes of this bits‑and‑pieces region. England’s end was draped with the usual pageantry of sheets and flags, a tour of towns and cities from Bradford to Shepton Mallet. The anthems were all energy and white noise. It felt like an epic stage. And early on Bellingham filled it.

He came deep on the left. He turned and twisted and did the shrugging walkway when you’ve been fouled that must be so maddening for opponents. He was elbowed in the face, dug in the ribs, kneed in the thigh. He was bravura, matadorial, curling his left foot around the ball, standing with his back arched, teasing.

In between he intercepted and dribbled and was fouled and sat up and waved the game on. You half-expected to look up and see him booking someone or prancing across to check the video assistant referee screen. What do you do with a player like this? How do you ration that life force? Do you even bother trying?

For a while England had width and passed nicely. The goal was beautifully made, with a quick‑slow stab at just the right moment. The run from Bukayo Saka made it, zipping outside his man, in perfect sync with Kyle Walker’s pass, nuzzled with the side of the foot. Saka’s cross was lifted via a deflection to the back post, and Bellingham came crashing in over the shoulder of a Serbia defender, all heft and lift and alpha power, heading cinematically into the top corner, landing as he heard the zing of the net.

Have England ever really had a player such as this, not just a marauding all-rounder but a footballer of such creative will and confidence? They have had brilliant young tournament players. Nothing has quite matched the tone of Wayne Rooney’s casual, screw-you brilliance in 2004. We remember Paul Gascoigne, who also had everything but was barely in control of his own energies, whereas Bellingham seems to have been born already processing his route to greatness.

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By half-time he had 55 touches and 96% of his passes completed. Two thoughts occurred. England need to keep this bloke fit. And this bloke will also need some help at some point.

Instead England stalled at the start of the second half. They sat deep and forgot how to wrest back control. Bellingham seemed to have emptied his tank. Harry Kane was locked in a narrow central role. Phil Foden was slack in his passing, a little lost in the system. Gareth Southgate’s substitutions were largely more of the same.

The performance will be both exciting and unsettling for the manager. England were brilliant, kind of, or one of them was. They were flat. They held on and won. There is a puzzle here to be solved. But the outcome remains just as tantalising.