A talent to treasure
With his instilled sense of humbleness and modesty, Jude Bellingham has impressed both pundits and fans alike. A plucky lad who left the Midlands behind and chose Westphalia as the place to continue his footballing education. After a fairy-tale first 18 months at Borussia Dortmund, the 18-year-old says: ''BVB is the best club for me and my development. I would even go as far as to say: I don’t think there’s anywhere better in the world!''
Sometimes you remember that he’s still just 18. For example, the goal scored against 1. FC Cologne in the world’s most beautiful stadium at the end of October. Jude Bellingham receives the ball at the right-hand corner of the area. He chips a delicate cross into Thorgan Hazard, who only has to stretch out his head and nod the ball into the back of the net. During the resultant celebration, Bellingham frees himself from the embrace of his teammates for a brief moment. As he throws his arms up and encourages the crowd to cheer, a smile breaks out on his face, one so boyish that it could only belong to someone of his age group. Then he turns back to his teammates and rejoins the celebrations.
"He's still just my boy," says Denise Bellingham, the proud mum who accompanied Jude to Dortmund when he embarked on his BVB journey in the summer of 2020. "Jude is fun and can be a bit silly too, he makes me laugh." And that's important for a teenager who doesn't have time to be a teenager at all, because in his first year in the Bundesliga he became a nailed-on starter, a DFB-Pokal winner, an England international and almost a European champion at the tournament where he became the youngest ever player to feature in the EUROs. That was on 13 June in England's 1-0 victory over Croatia at Wembley, 16 days before his 18th birthday.
To get a sense of what makes the Dortmund star so special, you don’t have to look much further than his hometown club, Birmingham City, who honoured Jude Bellingham’s achievements at St. Andrew’s Stadium in two ways. Firstly, his number 22 shirt has been retired, something you wouldn’t normally expect for a player who spent just a year in the first team and had already departed at the age of 17. Secondly, City produced a TV documentary entitled "The Rise of Jude Bellingham", which is going viral on YouTube. With this in mind, BVB made a sequel, dedicated to Jude's fairy-tale first year, which is being shown on Sky. We had a watch for you...
Jude, after all the hustle and bustle of the past few months, what does being out on the football pitch mean to you?
It's probably the only place in the world where I feel completely at ease. I don't have to do all that much to make things happen, football comes naturally to me. When I have the ball at my feet I want to compete, that's the most normal thing in the world for me. My teammates should always be able to see that I do everything I can to make sure we win. If we lose a game, I'm the worst person you can imagine being around. But when I'm not on the pitch, I'm just a normal guy who likes to relax and play Playstation.
A normal guy, who at 17 years of age had already played against some of the best players in the world and didn’t care how many millions of euros he was worth on the transfer market?
I already knew the figure, it was all over the place when I moved to Dortmund last summer, and I can only say that it was incredible! Who would spend so much money on such a young guy, especially in the middle of the Covid pandemic? I knew Dortmund was a big club, but it was only when I took my first selfie in the massive and fantastic stadium that I realised just how big.
Even though it was completely empty, just like it was for the entirety of last season.
Yeah, that was tough. But it means that now I appreciate getting to play in front of this fantastic crowd again even more. I’m a passionate player and I live off the energy that the fans give me.
There is a particularly touching scene in the TV documentary about the rise of Jude Bellingham. After the final whistle of a Bundesliga match, the players walk over to the edge of the pitch to thank the fans. Jude gestures to a blond-haired boy in the crowd, who is sat atop his father's shoulders. The Englishman hands the youngster his sweat-drenched jersey with the number 22 on the back. The two of them chat for a while, but Jude is the only one talking, because the blond boy, who is maybe four or five years old, is far too starstruck by what is happening - him and Jude Bellingham - no one will believe him when he tells the story in kindergarten on Monday. Jude is just about to leave for the dressing room when he catches sight of another child sitting beside the blond boy, who is a bit older and looks like he would quite like a jersey too. Jude smiles, pauses for thought and then hands his yellow under-vest over the barrier. ''Thanks", the boy calls out in a distinctly Westphalian-sounding English.
As someone who used to sit in the stands of St. Andrew’s as a Birmingham City fan, there is no danger of Jude forgetting where he came from. Maintaining a connection with the fans is important to him, and he tries to get as authentic an experience as possible. His first ever sentence in German was in a BVB-TV address to the fans at his first training camp under the rugged peaks of Bad Ragaz in the summer of 2020. It went like this: "Bis bald auf dem Rahmen, äh Rasen.” (See you soon on the frame, oh pitch.) As he said it, his face contorted in jest, but only partially. Even when learning a new and completely foreign language, he is driven by the same ambition that shines through on the football pitch.
In his first summer as a Dortmund player, Jude came fresh out of England’s second tier, the Championship. It wasn’t until the last day of a Covid-delayed season that his Birmingham City side managed to secure survival in the division. That meant he didn’t get a summer break, but at least he had lots of match practice under his belt. In his first competitive match in Black & Yellow - a 5-0 win over MSV Duisburg in the DFB-Pokal - he managed to get on the scoresheet. Then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, he was also named in the starting line-up for Borussia’s Bundesliga opener - a 3-0 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach. The opening goal was a perfect link-up between two 17-year-olds, with Jude Bellingham in the facilitating role, playing a perfect assist to goalscorer Gio Reyna. By the time the winter break came around, Jude had appeared in all competitions, missing only the Bundesliga games against 1. FC Cologne and Schalke 04.
You handled your first few weeks in Dortmund with such confidence, it seemed like you’d always been here. Is that just an outsider’s impression? Or was there something that helped make your arrival at BVB particularly easy?
Yes - being able to play alongside so many great players. You learn an unbelievable amount when you have people like Mats Hummels or Marco Reus in the team. BVB is the best club for me and my development. I would even go as far as to say: I don’t think there’s anywhere better in the world!
Looking back on it now, do you think going straight into the Bundesliga from the Championship without a break played to your advantage?
I reckon so! I was in top shape physically and could give it my all right from the beginning. But as time went on, the year became more and more exhausting. I had my ups and downs. By the time Christmas came along, I was glad that I had the chance to regenerate a bit.
After the winter break, Jude missed the first two games against Wolfsburg and Leipzig due to a foot injury, but he then only watched one more game from the sidelines for the remainder of the season, and only because he had serve a yellow-card suspension. Seemingly unperturbed by the demands of playing matches every three days, he always managed to bring his A-game. He typically controls the midfield with his rapid manoeuvring in tight spaces and his timely dispossessions, often just behind the halfway line, leaving the opposition defence exposed.
Jude Bellingham has captivated everyone in German football, but his personal highlight of the season came back in Britain, not so far from his old home. It's a good two hours by car from Birmingham to Manchester, where BVB faced Pep Guardiola's Manchester City in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie in April. Mark Bellingham was in the stands to see his eldest play. Mark works as a sergeant for the West Midlands Police and looks after his younger son Jobe, meaning he hadn’t seen Jude on the pitch for a while.
How did it feel to play against a star-laden Manchester City side in the Champions League with your father watching on from the stands?
It was unbelievable! I stood on the pitch and saw these great players - Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gündogan - and Pep Guardiola was there on the sidelines. But the most important thing for me was that my dad was sitting in the stands. He had last watched me in a home game for Birmingham. It was against Reading, it was on his birthday, and we lost.
A few things have happened since then.
Oh yeah! I moved to Dortmund and developed further. I still think about the conversations we used to have when I was a kid. They were often about young players who had just made the step-up to senior level...
…just like you last season, when you were already an established Bundesliga player at 17.
Hold on! My dad always used to tell me: you’ve made it when you have 100 league games under your belt. By that definition, I’m not there just yet.
It is probably this upbringing defined by humbleness and modesty that has shaped Jude Bellingham into the player he is today. One who doesn’t like to rest on his laurels and still sees himself as someone learning the ropes. "Jude is someone you just have to treasure," says Philipp Laux, adding: "He treats everyone the same and has an openness and warmth that I have rarely seen before. And all that coupled with an incredible focus on performance and an ability to deliver on the pitch at such a young age. It’s really something quite impressive." Philipp Laux knows what he is talking about. As Dortmund's team psychologist, he has a unique view behind the scenes of the seemingly superficial world of professional football.
In that Champions League match at the Etihad Stadium in April, in front of his father, Jude Bellingham nicked the ball from Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson and scored a perfectly legitimate goal that was disallowed for reasons only known to the referee. BVB went on to lose 2-1 in both games, despite Bellingham sparking hope with the opening goal in the second leg. His performance was so impressive that a grinning Pep Guardiola declared: "I can't believe it, maybe he's lying. He is so good for a 17-year-old. A fantastic player."
After elimination at the hands of City, BVB’s focus switched entirely to the domestic front. Going into the final straight of the Bundesliga season and staring down a seemingly insurmountable seven-point gap from the Champions League places, the Black & Yellows hit another gear to jump up from fifth place to third. In a victory over VfB Stuttgart, the first of a seven-game winning streak to close out the season, Jude Bellingham finally scored his first goal in the Bundesliga. It was a typical Jude Bellingham goal: after neat interplay between Mo Dahoud and Gio Reyna, he deftly slotted the ball into the near-corner from the edge of the penalty area. His teammates’ congratulations were quickly pushed back, as there was still work to be done. Jude rushed into the box to gather the ball, the invaluable memento of the historic act. In the process, there was a brief scuffle with the grumpy giant in the Stuttgart goal - a certain Gregor Kobel. I’m almost certain the two have since settled their disagreement.
The run of success continued. From lifting the DFB-Pokal after victory over Leipzig in Berlin, to the final of the pan-European EUROs, where Bellingham watched on from the bench as his England team lost out to Italy on penalty kicks.
With the exception of that final, everything went well for you this year…
Everything went well for me, absolutely everything, and it’s all gone by so quickly! It was an incredible feeling to play in the EUROs for England. I also don't think defeat in the final casts a shadow over everything. No one should forget that it was a very successful tournament for us.
Just like last year, you didn’t get much of a summer break.
But there is one very important difference; this time I knew what to expect, and I came back to Dortmund full of confidence after the EUROs. I have become better both technically and physically, I have really improved in all aspects of my game.
This new and improved Jude Bellingham has shown just how good he is across all competitions this season. Take the opening game of the club’s Champions League campaign - a 2-1 victory over Besiktas in Istanbul - as an example. He scored the first goal himself, with a cheeky volleyed finish through the goalkeeper's legs from a tight angle, but the more impressive feat came after the second goal. Jude set up Erling Haaland with an inch-perfect pass, and the big Norwegian looked to express his gratitude with a joint celebration: a short run-up before jumping up in the air for a chest bump - quite a few others have retreated from this, wary of facing the might of the giant Haaland. Bellingham, the lanky lad from Birmingham, took on the challenge with relish.
And then there's the Bundesliga match in Bielefeld, which witnessed Jude Bellingham's most beautiful goal to date for Dortmund. A six-touch waltz around three Bielefeld defenders in the space of seven seconds, followed by an delicate finish with his left foot. This was the same game in which Mats Hummels drilled the ball into the roof of the net with a rarely-seen mixture of skill and brute force. Mats later recalled with feigned indignation: "I already said to Jude: I score a goal like that one, and he has to go and score another one in the same game. I didn't think that was very considerate of him as a teammate!" He then added: "Well, I have to admit, I thought his was maybe a bit better.''
Author: Sven Goldmann