This article first appeared in our January 2021 edition, which you can order here.
Jude Bellingham doesn’t like to waste time.
When he was 14 years old, the midfielder was already playing four levels above his age group in Birmingham City’s academy. Twelve months on, he was handed a promotion to their under-23s. In August 2019, aged 16 years and 38 days, his man-of-the-match display in City’s 3-0 League Cup loss to Portsmouth was even more notable for him becoming their youngest ever player – beating Trevor Francis’ 1970 record by more than three months.
Within a few weeks, Bellingham had also become the youngest scorer in Blues history, emerging off the bench before hitting a late winner in a 2-1 Championship success over Stoke City. If there were any concerns about the schoolboy’s ability to deal with the demands of senior men’s football, they were short-lived.
“It almost felt like I was trying to prove a point,” the 17-year-old now tells FourFourTwo, at Borussia Dortmund’s Hohenbuschei training ground.
Bellingham is reflecting on a preposterous past 14 months, in which he proved a vital player for his boyhood club – at an age where most of his peers are applying for provisional driving licences – then shot into Champions League history with Dortmund, becoming the youngest Englishman to start a game in the competition. Bellingham is different: you don’t achieve all of that at 17 without being a little special.
Relaxed and articulate, he doesn’t even sound like your average teenager, despite moving to a different country only months ago. But perhaps it figures.
“I didn’t get nervous,” the starlet explains of his big breakthrough at Birmingham last season. “I felt this was the chance I wanted, the chance I’ve worked for and fought for in training since I was a kid. For me to then get nervous and spoil it would have been stupid, so I decided to grasp it with both hands.”
Just like that, Jude Bellingham had arrived.
English kids in North Rhine-Westphalia
Bellingham clearly had somewhere to be in a hurry. In a pandemic-hit 2019/20, his box-to-box displays provided a welcome tonic for suffering Birmingham supporters cheering from home, and an intriguing proposition for scouts at Europe’s top clubs. The Blues were set for a summer of intense negotiations.
True to form, though, Bellingham was quick to do a deal with Dortmund. The €25 million initial fee suited everybody – a world-record sum for a 17-year-old, but still a fair price all things considered. In recognition of his rapid rise, Birmingham decided to retire his No.22 shirt. Social media tittered, but the teenager was least bothered of anyone.
“For me – whether people feel it was really deserved or not – it was an honour,” reveals Bellingham. “The club I love, recognising the things I did during my time there. You could say, ‘Well he only played this many matches and scored this many goals,’ but in my city I almost became a bit of an icon for some of the kids growing up.
“People enjoyed watching me play. I don’t necessarily think that was enough for them to retire my number, but it’s something I can be very proud of, and the club can be very proud of. Everyone benefited from me going, so I can understand their reasons and I’m extremely grateful to them.”
In July, Bellingham arrived in Germany to begin his career’s next chapter. He describes himself as a “confident lad”, but admits to feeling awestruck during his maiden training session at one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
“It was surreal,” he recalls. “It was like, ‘Oh my god, there’s Mats Hummels, a World Cup winner. He’s done everything in football. And there’s Jadon Sancho, and Marco Reus’. You know, they’re football icons.
“On the pitch, you see how these guys carry themselves, how hard they work in training, and how determined they are to keep getting better. For me, that was insane, because you see how good they are already. That’s pushed me to want to be the best I can be.”
It’s no surprise Bellingham picks out Sancho in particular. The former Manchester City youngster changed the game for young English players after choosing to join BVB in August 2017. That decision, a year after Pep Guardiola’s arrival at the Etihad Stadium, was seen as a huge gamble. Now, after three full seasons in Dortmund – in which Sancho has made more than 100 outings and established himself in the England line-up – others have followed suit. Bellingham is in no doubt about the effect his new team-mate has had on British youngsters.
“It’s massive,” he tells FFT. “Jadon is a big example for someone English and my age. We’re all trying to play but, specifically, we’re trying to make that next step into Europe’s elite – especially if you’ve already played at a certain level. Jadon’s done that perfectly.”
Despite Sancho’s influence, Bellingham never directly reached out to his compatriot before signing for Dortmund. Since joining, though, the pair have become good friends.
“When I first arrived in Dortmund, he was the one who really helped me out,” says Bellingham fondly. “He was like, ‘Do you need this, do you understand what this is, do you know how to get this?’ He didn’t need to do that. He could have just gone about his own business and worried about himself, so for him to take the time to do that tells you a lot about what he’s like as a character.”
Everything about Sancho, from his playing style and dress sense to his online presence, hints at a young man who enjoys standing out from the crowd. So, has the appearance of another Englishman stolen his thunder?
“Well, I’ve taken a bit of the shine off him, haven’t I?” laughs Bellingham. “But no, he’s been great with me. It’s nice to have another English lad around – we share music tastes and other stuff like that.”
Had things panned out differently, the pair may have joined forces in the Premier League instead of the Bundesliga. Over the summer, Sancho was the centre of a protracted saga between Dortmund and Manchester United, who eventually decided against meeting the south Londoner’s alleged €150m valuation. Bellingham was also courted heavily by the Red Devils and even received a guided tour of the training ground from Sir Alex Ferguson. Despite United pulling out all the stops to try to lure him from the Midlands, there was only ever one club on the midfielder’s mind.
“United have a fantastic squad, but I was so focused and so happy with the interest from Dortmund that this became my first choice,” he declares. “It was never a case of this club over this club. For me, it was always Borussia Dortmund, and that’s it.
“The only thing I was bothered about while making my decision was playing football, and this was the best place to do that.
“It’s as clear as day that if you come here and do the right things, you’re going to get your opportunity.”
Super Sweet 17
There’s still no sign of Bellingham hitting the wall. Not three months after turning 17, he made his competitive debut in the first round of the DFB-Pokal, becoming BVB’s youngest goalscorer in a 5-0 shellacking of third-tier Duisburg in September.
“He attacks, he gets forward – and not just with his passing but with the ball at his feet,” BVB boss Lucien Favre said proudly after that victory. “But he also comes back and defends with great commitment.”
An assist on his Bundesliga bow – for fellow teen Giovanni Reyna – against rivals Borussia Monchengladbach followed five days later. Bellingham then took Phil Foden’s record as the youngest Englishman to feature in the Champions League, against Lazio in Rome.
“That was so crazy,” he says of the latter milestone. “You never take the chance to look back at your own journey. And because we lost 3-1, maybe I didn’t either. In July, I was playing in the Championship – towards the bottom end of the table, aiming for survival. Fast-forward three months and I’m starting in the Champions League.”
While Dortmund are renowned for offering tyros opportunities, Bellingham’s introduction appears particularly fast-tracked. Sancho, by comparison, didn’t become a regular starter until partway through his second campaign with the German giants.
“Obviously it’s a step up, but I was ready for it,” insists Bellingham. “I played in 44 games last year, so maybe my situation was slightly different to Jadon’s. I had a short break after the season and felt that as soon as I got back on the pitch and could show everyone what I could do, I’d get my opportunity.
“When you’re in the environment that I’ve been in last year with Birmingham and the start of this season with Dortmund, you have to grow up quickly. You have to leave behind your childish habits because you’re expected to be at a certain level that’s similar to your team-mates. Otherwise you’re letting them down, you’re letting yourself down and you’re not going to maximise your ability.”
A smile breaks across Bellingham’s face.
“To be fair, though,” he adds, “my parents would say I’m just as immature and that I’m putting it on for you lot.”
The youngster’s family have been crucial on his journey so far. Born in Stourbridge, 13 miles from Birmingham, Bellingham juggled school with training at the Blues’ academy from the age of seven.
"You don’t send your child off to football training with the plan that he’ll one day turn professional,” Bellingham’s mother Denise has said. “He was having fun, that was the most important thing.”
Denise moved to Germany with her son in the summer. The pair share an apartment on the outskirts of Dortmund, a city he describes as “a bit like Birmingham”, with “respectful people who don’t bombard you with phones or demand pictures”.
His mother’s gentle guidance may go some way to explaining why he appears so relaxed on and off a football pitch, but that only tells part of the story.
His father, Mark, enjoyed a 20-year career as a prolific non-league striker. Before finally hanging up his boots in 2017, Bellingham Snr starred for clubs including Stourbridge, Halesowen, Bromsgrove, Leamington and Sutton Coldfield, plundering more than 700 goals. “They were all inside the six-yard box!” laughs his eldest son. “It’s important to keep him level-headed.”
Bellingham’s dad continues to work as an officer with the West Midlands Police and has remained in England to help Jude’s younger brother Jobe, another promising player who is in Birmingham’s youth setup.
“This is the first time we’ve split up – we’ve got 50 per cent of the family in Germany and 50 per cent in England,” reveals Bellingham, who senses his sibling, 15, may well become a different type of footballer.
“I think he’s going to be a more advanced player. It’s difficult to say at the moment, as he’s having a growth spurt.
“I’m proud of him and can’t wait to watch how he develops over the next two or three years. We’ve always pushed each other. I’ve never really fought with him, but when I think back to the times I did, it was always about football and who was winning.
“Now he’s just hammering me whenever he gets the chance – that always keeps me humble,” grins Bellingham. “Being a lad from Birmingham, everyone is working class, you know your roots and know how you have to carry yourself. This kind of thing doesn’t often happen to someone like me, but I have the perfect people around to keep me grounded. I’m so grateful for that.”
Professional footballer or not, education remains vital to Bellingham – he’s studying for a BTEC in sport while doing his best to learn a new language.
“I’m understanding more day by day,” he explains. “I find it tough to speak German – the way these guys pronounce the words is pretty weird to me, but I’m grasping more and more.
“Luckily, everyone speaks English very well. The coaches prefer to speak in German, but there’s always someone to translate. Now I’ve been here for several months, if I pick up three words in a sentence, that’s enough to piece together what the coach is on about. It’s all good.”
Grinding with Axel
In addition to his fresh cultural surroundings, Bellingham is also adapting to a new playing style, which has only strengthened his game.
“I came from the second division of English football, which is famous for being direct and more brutal at times,” he suggests. “I think here [in the Bundesliga] it’s more like a game of chess: each move, each substitution, each formation is perfectly placed to open up the opposition or get a certain reaction that will create opportunities.
“Being in this environment will only improve my football knowledge. I’ve experienced the brutal, tough side, and that’s what got me to this point; now, I’ll continue to keep learning the German style, too.”
The 17-year-old has frequently partnered Belgian powerhouse Axel Witsel at the base of Dortmund’s midfield.
“Axel would be the perfect Championship player,” he laughs. “I’ve not told him that, though, as he might squash me.”
Witsel, a100-cap international, is just one of many world-class players Bellingham now calls colleagues. While he holds his former pals at St Andrew’s in high regard, BVB’s new No.22 has equally embraced the step up.
“With all due respect to my Birmingham team-mates – and they were great with me, the way they treated me as a player and as a young professional was
amazing – it’s a huge step up in terms of the quality, in training sessions and in matches,” he admits. “They won’t mind me saying that.
To work with these kinds of players every day makes you want to express yourself, playing a style of football that’s a bit more attractive. Having these guys around makes your job so much easier, but also makes you want to give more. It’s perfect.”
Although Sancho and Die Schwarzgelben’s other attackers tend to hog the headlines, it’s an often-overlooked wideman who has left Bellingham astounded in training and games.
“The one player not many people recognise or talk about too much is [left-back] Raphael Guerreiro,” says the youngster, puffing out his cheeks. “Honestly, he only plays with his left foot but some of the things he can do – his passing, his dribbling – he makes look easy. He runs rings around everyone – to him, it’s a laugh. When Jadon is on it, it’s frightening. Some of the stuff I’ve seen him do is scary, and I’ve only been here a few months.”
Sancho may yet depart the club in 2021, but Dortmund’s youth policy means there are always exceptional young players ready to fill the void. Goal-machine Erling Haaland, 20, and midfielder Reyna, freshly 18, are joined by free-scoring forward Youssoufa Moukoko – only just 16, but also expected to have an impact this season after making his debut at Hertha Berlin in November.
“I think when you play with these guys, it’s easy to build a connection because you can relate to them a bit more,” says Bellingham. “We’re in the same boat, at similar points in our career, but at the same time we have a great balance in the squad.
I’ve said before that the young players will get the spotlight when everything’s going well, but you have to look to the more experienced guys and how much they help ease us in games.” Despite his excellent start, there is still one thing Bellingham hasn’t ticked off–playing in front of the famous YellowWall. Signal Iduna Park’s southern terrace accommodates more than 25,000 passionate standing supporters – almost a third of the stadium when full.
“We had 11,500 fans in for a game against Freiburg [in October] and it was still unreal,” he says. “It was so loud, and I can’t wait to hear what 80,000 sounds like. It’s something every football fan admires Borussia Dortmund for. I can’t wait to perform in front of those supporters every week.”
However, a big fanbase comes with added responsibility. Dortmund are one of German football’s most successful clubs, having won two Bundesliga crowns and two DFB-Pokals over the past decade. But with last season’s Treble winners Bayern Munich targeting their ninth consecutive title this term, the pressure is on Favre’s charges to re-assert themselves after back-to-back runners-up finishes.
“There’s no hiding, really,” says Bellingham. “We want to win trophies, of course, but it’s not something we put too much pressure on ourselves to do. Ultimately, you win trophies by winning football matches. That’s all we’re focused on. We just try to win the next game and the one after that.”
There’s certainly no hiding for their teenage midfielder, whose first England call-up also came much earlier than expected. Following an injury to Southampton midfielder James Ward-Prowse, boss Gareth Southgate invited Bellingham to his first Three Lions squad in November, then gave him his debut against the Republic of Ireland at Wembley. Now with a foot in the door, the starlet has a chance of making it to the summer’s Euros – although, for once, he is more than happy to take things slowly.
“It’s obviously everyone’s dream to play for their country and I’m no different,” he says. “But the manager decides that, and it’s not something I want to rush. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing for Dortmund. That’s all I can do.
“You hear about players who are unhappy at a club and want to move – then they move, they’re still unhappy and they want to move again. I’d say simply enjoy your football, keep working very hard and identify which areas of your game you need to improve. You can’t be part-time in this game. Everything you do needs to revolve around football.
“Some people aren’t willing to sacrifice that much and some are, and it’s those guys who will get their chances eventually. Work hard and play with a smile.”
But that’s easy for Jude Bellingham to say. When you’re this good, how could you play any other way?
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