Three months after England’s run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals ended, Jude Bellingham made his first appearance for Birmingham City’s Under-23 side – aged 15 .
Not old enough even for a provisional driving licence, the versatile midfielder is now set to become one of the figures the Three Lions will rely on as they aim to win a first World Cup since 1966 .
Declan Rice is a sure starter for Gareth Southgate in midfield, but the question of who his partner will be remains unresolved. Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson, the 2018 side’s pivot, has struggled with fitness and has only completed 90 minutes three times this season.
Kalvin Phillips, Rice’s partner when England finished runners-up in the 2020 European Championship, has only been on the pitch in the Premier League for a single minute since signing for Manchester City in the summer.
Being thrust into a key role in your first World Cup is a huge burden for any player to carry, let alone one who won’t turn 20 until next June. Bellingham, however, is no ordinary teenager. These days, he regularly wears the captain’s armband as he manages midfield for German giants Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga and Champions League.
His ability to keep his head on a pivot and deliver star performances on the big stage is astounding.
In September, he gave a glimpse of what he could do in Qatar, when England drew 3-3 with former rivals Germany in a Nations League game.
He won the man of the match award after a standout performance alongside Rice as they took on the formidable duo of Ilkay Gundogan and Joshua Kimmich, who have 132 caps between them.
Bellingham finished the game with more accurate passing, passing in the final third and shooting than any other player. He has also won more duels than anyone on the pitch. It was only his eighth start for England in his 17th cap.
Following der Klassiker’s draw with Bayern Munich in October, the Straits Times asked Bellingham how he managed to consistently excel on the pitch while coping with the pressure of his meteoric rise.
Wearing a relaxed smile, he simply said, “I have very good people around me, I’m still being held down (on the ground) but I still want to improve too. I think I can always improve.
Later that month he also told the Bundesliga website that his mentality had been forged since his time at Birmingham, for whom he played from the age of eight until joining Dortmund at 17.
“Anything you want, you have to work for, and if you don’t get it, you have to have something inside you that pushes you to go get it,” he said.
City manager Pep Guardiola called that fighting mentality “something special” ahead of a Champions League draw in October, while former Dortmund skipper Roman Weidenfeller, a member of Germany’s Cup-winning side World 2014, described Bellingham as “very complete…a warrior on the pitch”. ground”.
Another former Dortmund man, defender Patrick Owomoyela, conducted the club’s first official interview with Bellingham after signing, and told ST he was struck by his intelligence and ambition.
“I could see he had so much confidence in himself even at 17. And he backed that up with so much passion and quality. I’m overwhelmed with his talent…this kid is amazing,” Owomoyela said, a German international with 11 selections.
Europe’s elite clubs will be watching Bellingham’s exploits in Qatar closely. Liverpool, Real Madrid, City and Manchester United are said to look up to the player, who is valued at 90 million euros ($125.8m) by Transfermarkt.
All that attention, however, won’t bother Bellingham at all. In fact, he’s proven to thrive there.
JAMAL MUSIALA (Germany)