When a 17-year-old Jude Bellingham left Birmingham City to join Borussia Dortmund in July of 2020, Birmingham City released a statement retiring his No. 22 jersey, stating that it was “fitting to retire this number, to remember one of our own and to inspire others”.
Retiring a player’s jersey number is a rarity in football. Retiring the shirt of a teenager with just one season of professional football under his belt is a rarer occurrence. But Jude Victor William Bellingham was not just another teenage prospect.
Born in the market town of Stourbridge, in the West Midlands, Jude Bellingham did not initially take to football. “As soon as you put a football in front of him, [he was] not really interested,” Phil Wooldridge, Bellingham’s first coach, said of him. “It took a while [for him to get into football], it wasn’t just overnight, it was a matter of a few months.”
Wooldridge and Bellingham’s father, Mark, later established a grassroots team called Stourbridge Juniors. Bellingham was a regular for Stourbridge Juniors before he was invited to join Birmingham City’s academy as a seven-year-old. At Birmingham, the youngster began showing signs of his tremendous ability, but his ‘attitude’ was what made him stand out, according to Mike Dodds, who trained him at Birmingham’s academy.
“He was my best coach educator, because if he wasn’t happy with a session, if he wasn’t happy with the kind of route that his development was going, he would be the first person to let me know his thoughts,” Dodds said.
At just 16, he was promoted to Birmingham City’s first team heading into the 19/20 Championship season. It was the start of a meteoric rise for a player who has gone from strength to strength since making his professional debut on August 6, 2019, in an EFL Cup first-round match against Portsmouth, a match that his team lost 3-0.
Bellingham played 44 games for Birmingham that season. The level of talent and maturity he showed on the field at that age attracted the attention of England’s biggest clubs, but it was Borussia Dortmund, with the promise of immediate, regular first-team football at the highest level, who won the race for his signature.
The ascension of a star in Dortmund
On September 14, 2020, Bellingham made his Borussia Dortmund debut in a DFB-Pokal encounter against third-tier MSV Duisburg. He made an immediate impact, scoring Dortmund’s second goal in a 5-0 thrashing of the minnows. Five days later, he made his first Bundesliga appearance against Borussia Mönchengladbach, setting up the first goal in Dortmund’s 3-0 victory.
Bellingham’s promising start to life in Germany earned him the Bundesliga Rookie of the Month for September 2020, and his first call-up to the England national team followed two months later in November of that year.
Creative, industrious, charismatic, and able to play anywhere in the middle, the youngster established himself as an integral component for a Dortmund side that would reach the Champions League last eight and win the DFB-Pokal that season. He played in 46 games across all competitions, scored four goals, and received the Bundesliga Newcomer of the Year award voted for by his fellow players that season.
But it was his performances against Manchester City in the Champions League quarterfinals that season that marked his “coming of age.” Despite Dortmund’s elimination, Bellingham showcased his immense talent in both legs of the encounter against a formidable opposition.
In the first leg at the Etihad, Bellingham was involved in the build-up to BVB’s only goal, scored by Marco Reus, in a 2-1 loss. In the second leg, he scored a beautiful curler just inside the box to put Dortmund ahead early in the game; they would eventually lose 2-1, but Bellingham’s overall performances over the two legs left many talking, including Guardiola, who joked that the midfielder might be lying about his age.
“I can’t believe it, maybe he is a liar,” Guardiola said of Bellingham. “He’s so good for a 17 year old, he’s a fantastic player. There was one moment when he didn’t get the ball from the central defenders, how he shouts and demands that ball to him. At 17 it means a lot.”
With six goals and fourteen assists from central midfield in 44 matches in his second season, he further cemented his status as one of the game’s brightest young talents, and interest in his signature from Europe’s leading clubs only increased.
In his third and final year at Dortmund, he was made the team’s third captain despite being only 19, and he wore the armband on numerous occasions. He was the standout player during a season in which Dortmund came agonizingly close to breaking Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga stranglehold. He finished the season with 14 goals and 7 assists in all competitions and was named the Bundesliga Player of the Season.
Clamor for a new galactico at Real Madrid
Last season, Real Madrid finished ten points behind Barcelona in La Liga to relinquish the title they had won the previous year. They were also unable to defend their Champions League crown after falling 5-1 to Manchester City on aggregate in the semifinals. A first Copa Del Rey trophy in nearly a decade saved it from being a trophyless campaign.
Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio both departed at the end of the season. Eden Hazard, the club’s most recent ‘galactico’, was unceremoniously released after four injury-plagued years in which he was unable to replicate his Chelsea performances in Spain.
It was Benzema’s departure, though, after 14 trophy-laden years at Madrid—which coincided with the club’s dominance over European football—that perturbed Madrid supporters the most. The club’s second all-time scorer, who left for Saudi riches in June, left behind a huge vacuum at the heart of Madrid’s attack. It prompted the fans to demand a replacement, a marquee. Florentino Perez duly obliged, turning his gaze to the Bundesliga, which a young Englishman had turned into his frolic terrace.
Jude Bellingham has entered a dressing room packed with elite talent, serial winners, and all-time greats (if you view Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in that light) and hasn’t seemed at all fazed; far from looking like the new guy, the England international has quickly integrated into the dressing room and assumed a role as one of the team’s leaders on the pitch with his stellar performances.
By scoring 10 goals in his first 10 matches, Bellingham became the first player since a certain Cristiano Ronaldo to hit double figures for goals in their first 10 matches for Real Madrid. His goals are a big reason Los Blancos are currently top of La Liga and in control of their Champions League group.
Those around Birmingham who knew Bellingham from the beginning of his career will probably not be surprised to see him now playing for Real Madrid. But what they or anyone else would not have predicted is that he would shine so brightly early in his Madrid career.
Although he’s not a like-for-like replacement for Benzema, he has assumed the role of being the team’s main offensive weapon. So far this season, Carlo Ancelotti has utilized him as the furthest midfielder—in the No. 10 position—in his now-preferred 4-3-1-2 system to great effect.
Industrious yet elegant in possession, Bellingham is a multifaceted midfielder who excels in every phase of the game. Basically, he is a jack of all trades. Off the ball, he works tirelessly and covers a lot of ground. On the ball, his imposing physique, technical prowess, and intelligence allow him to do whatever he wants to do on the pitch; be it evading opponents, carrying the ball up the pitch, retraining possession, making the right decisions, creating for his teammates, or scoring himself.
Bellingham’s performance against Napoli at the start of October, for example, was an exhibition of his technical and physical prowess as well as his intelligence. Leo Ostigård had given Napoli the lead after 19 minutes, following a skirmish inside Madrid’s box that resulted from a corner kick. Napoli’s lead lasted only eight minutes before Real Madrid equalized through Vinicius Jr in the 27th minute. But the goal was down to Bellingham’s athleticism and excellent decision-making.
After Real Madrid gave up possession down Napoli’s right, Bellingham pressed to close the space, then slid to intercept Di Lorenzo’s pass to Stanislav Lobotka. With one touch, he was inside Napoli’s penalty area, facing the retreating center halves. He smartly slipped through the overlapping Vinicius Jr to his left. The Brazilian connected with the pass and then slotted home to restore parity at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium.
If Bellingham’s assist to Vinicius underlined his willingness to work hard off the ball and make the right decisions in crucial moments, his goal seven minutes later to put Madrid in front highlighted his ability to drive from deep and wreak havoc on the opposition.
Picking up the ball 40 yards away from goal, Bellingham slalomed through the Napoli defense. When he got inside the area, he performed a deft chop with his left foot, sending Ostigård into a daze before curling the ball to the left corner with his right foot.
Nobody saw that goal coming, but we all expected his trademark arms wide open and gaze into the stands celebration which followed after the ball hit the back of the net.
Real Madrid edged out 3-2 thanks to Federico Valverde’s thunderbolt strike in the 78th minute, which forced an own goal from Napoli’s goalkeeper after the home team had drawn level early in the second half. Bellingham dominated the headlines afterwards for yet another outstanding display.
If anything, Bellingham’s performance against the Italian Champions further demonstrated that he can be that player, the one who steps up for Madrid on Champions League nights when the stakes are higher and the lights are brighter.
Ancelotti said of the youngster after the Napoli game, “I’m surprised he’s only 20 years old because he looks like he’s 30 because of his character and attitude.
“He is always focused on the game and knows what he has to do. It’s unusual for a 20-year-old. He has a lot of quality, physical strength and skill. He surprises me like he does to everyone else.”
Bellingham followed up his man of the match showing against Napoli with another in the league four days later against Osasuna, scoring two well taken goals to set the tone for Madrid on their way to a comfortable 4-0 home win before the last international break.
Nacho Fernandez, the team’s captain, has stated that Bellingham was born to play for Real Madrid. But if circumstances were a little different, he might have been playing for another team right now. Liverpool led the race to sign him, falling away only because of Dortmund’s €100 million valuation of the player, which is now looking like a bargain.
An era-defining talent
It is early days for Jude Bellingham at the club; yet the excitement surrounding him is palpable, and even his teammates believe he can lead Los Blancos to another period of dominance in European football.
“Some players are destined to define an era and Jude has those characteristics. He has been in professional football for many years already, but Real Madrid is next level,” Federico Valverde has said.
“Still, he has arrived in good form and acts like he has been here for many years. I think that shows the player he is, but he’s also a special person. He’s very positive and I think he can be a captain to define an era at Real Madrid.”
One by one, the pillars of Real Madrid’s imperial hegemony of the last decade are ebbing away. Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in 2018 after nine glorious years at the club signaled the beginning of the end of this chapter. The five years that followed have seen the departures of Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Casemiro, Gareth Bale, and most recently, Karim Benzema from the Bernabeu.
As one cycle at Real Madrid winds down gracefully, another is beginning to take form. The likes of Federico Valverde, Vinicius Jr., Rodrygo Goes, Eduardo Camavinga, and Aurelien Tchoumeni have all been integrated into the team in recent seasons and are growing in prominence. Arder Güler, the Turkish starlet signed from Fenerbahce in July, has yet to make his first appearance. And there’s also Endrick who will join in 2024.
Bellingham arrived in June for big money and hit the ground running, quickly taking on a leadership role within this talented group, who he already seems to share a great, reciprocated, camaraderie with. It didn’t take long for Madridistas to warm up to him, either, or imitate his trademark arms wide open and gaze into the stands goal celebration that is fast becoming iconic.
Ridiculously talented, charismatic, and level-headed: Jude Bellingham is a galactico who can define Real Madrid’s coming era.