Jude Bellingham has been brilliant at Real Madrid so far
There is also a new romance to that, even if we are talking about the grandest traditional power in football history.
As someone who grew up absorbing the lore of the game, Bellingham just relished the chance to be one of Madrid’s great stars. He was acutely aware that means more than virtually anywhere else in the world. It’s why he made up his mind to go to the Bernabeu as early as last December – as reported by The Independent at the time – but probably as soon as Madrid came in.
The Bernabeu negotiation team, led by chief scout Juni Calafat, pitched the club as “the best place for young talent in Europe”. They pointed to the development of his current teammates Vinicius Jr, Aurelien Tchouameni, Eduardo Camavinga and Federico Valverde.
They didn’t need to. Bellingham was already thinking about right now. He believes he can deliver the biggest trophies this season, and demands such ambition of teammates. He tells them they’re already the best. It was one other reason he rejected a bigger financial offer from Manchester City, and turned down Liverpool.
That has played into how he has superseded expectations in other ways. When Madrid were pursuing the former Borussia Dortmund midfielder, the calculation was that he would be Luka Modric’s long-term successor.
Real Madrid signed Bellingham as a successor to Luka Modric but he has proven a far more attacking threat
Bellingham has instead proven Karim Benzema’s immediate successor. Far from a midfielder, he has played much closer to the French legend’s previous position and essentially replaced his goal output. Such a return has already put Bellingham within one goal of his best tally at Dortmund, which was 14 last season.
That fact pushes back some of the caveats that can admittedly be made about the 20-year-old’s form.
This is maybe the weakest Spanish league since the 1970s, the competition’s necessary financial reorganisation preventing the arrival of the stars that have defined it for pretty much all of the last few days. Within that, and against the financial power of state-owned clubs, Madrid also reorganised themselves. There was a shift in philosophy towards youth. Going against their entire history, but going with the prevailing economic trends of the game, president Florentino Perez realised the need to bring in the game’s next best stars rather than the current Ballon d’Or winners. It was quite an inversion from even a decade ago, and the many unfavourable contrasts with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona
Madrid and especially Calafat have done a superb job, almost creating the world’s next great team by stealth. They were still a club, and a league, waiting for a true star, though. They had been waiting for Mbappe.
But that’s Mbappe. That’s the level. That’s what Bellingham has risen to. That’s what two game-changing match-winning goals in a Clasico symbolises, especially at this age.
It might be a more forgiving Liga but Bellingham himself is a highly demanding player. Gareth Southgate has spoken of how “he has been a catalyst, the way he carries himself”. Bellingham asks more of teammates, albeit in an encouraging way. He already looks and sounds like a leader.
Jude Bellingham was awarded with the Kopa trophy at the Ballon d’Or ceremony
No one around the England camp will yet say this publicly for fear of having the perils of knockout football throw it back in their faces, but there is a feeling he is exactly the sort of personality the national team has been waiting for. Bellingham is a truly modern player, unencumbered by the weight of the past. He studies it, yes, but only to set ambitions.
There is a belief that he can be the player to at last bring England over the line. Madrid feel the same. So does pretty much everyone in football.
If this all sounds like setting his career path just as it’s started, it only fits in with how Bellingham thinks and speaks. No doubt is discernible. Everyone who has spoken to him has noted his striking assertiveness. It even extends to his learning of Spanish, as he isn’t afraid to make mistakes.
This has only further endeared him to a Madrid dressing room that already loves him. That can be seen in the response to his goals, how even teammates like Vinicius Jr have taken on the “Hey Jude” theme.
This is already becoming Bellingham’s Madrid. It may soon be his era, too.
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