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6 July 2024updated 09 Jul 2024 3:15pm

Will England love the real Jude Bellingham?

He's not the national hero you want him to be.

By Clive Martin

Imagine the embarrassment. You spend four years spreading the word of a messiah: a polite, prodigious, starchild-cum-saviour, destined to bring us into the light. And then, days before his 21st birthday, he reveals himself to be someone quite different. A stroppy, superior, bumptious little brat who scores one of the best goals in his country’s history and then runs to scream “who else!?” at a small nation whose sporting dreams he has just crushed.

This is the arc of Jude Bellingham. The rapid reveal of his fiery character, and our new understanding of what he actually does on the pitch, has been a difficult one for some parts of the media to stomach. On TalkSport, the ex-Premier League manager René Meulensteen called his celebration against Slovakia “arrogant”, while social media is loaded with jokes about him shouting “vamos” more times than playing a forward pass. Last year, stories leaked that his ex-Borussia Dortmund teammates were unhappy with his attitude around the dressing room, while Gareth Southgate has had to address some of his tempestuous handbags and histrionics in the Euros.

The humble police officer’s son from Stourbridge now carries himself with the air of a Neymar, a Mayweather, or a Kennedy clan kid playing touch football at Princeton. Someone who knows he is better than everyone else, and has no problem reminding them of it. Yet, he retains an uncanny ability to show up when it matters, possessing a self-confidence and gumption that is rare in British sport, where so many talents have carried a certain “happy to be here” mentality.

From the beginning, there was always a sense that Bellingham was different. After bursting on to the scene playing in the Championship, England’s second tier, for Birmingham City as a 15-year-old, he famously turned down an Alex Ferguson-led courtship at Manchester United (at the time unthinkable and, now, very much understandable). Instead, he went to the Borussia Dortmund finishing school, where he cemented himself as a freakish talent who could play almost any position in the German league. As his reputation grew, he did not return to the Premier League as fellow Englishman in the Rhine-Ruhr Jadon Sancho did, rather jumping straight into the deep end at Real Madrid, where the Rick Rubin-esque manager Carlo Ancelotti turned him into a peculiar deep-lying centre forward, with a licence to crash into boxes loaded with centre backs.

His eloquent, super-confident manner, his sensible haircut and glaring lack of tattoos seemed to reassure the Souness-Keane-Shearer-sphere that this was a player who wasn’t going to fall in line with some vicious super-agent, or wrap a yellow Lamborghini around a tree any time soon. He conducted interviews with his parents, talking about the importance of staying true to his roots. The press began to coo over him – the phrase “he speaks well” starting to follow him around like a bad smell. Indeed, I recall one tweet suggesting he should become a manager one day, based on one post-match interview. Already, he was an arbiter of something greater than football.

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But then, Bellingham started to mature into something sharper and more starry. At Madrid, his playing style – which, in the Championship, reminded people of a more athletic Ronaldinho – started to look much more like Frank Lampard, or a slightly more creative Jamie Vardy. He cemented a powerful, economic, ruthless, but ultimately unsexy way of playing – one that seemed to fade as his 2023-24 season went on. Alongside this came red cards, arguments with referees and other players, the occasional grumpy and irritable performance. It all reminds me of the line in Children of Men about Baby Diego, a beacon of hope by virtue of being the youngest person on Earth. “‘Baby Diego’, come on. The guy was a wanker,” says Clive Owen’s character.

Personally, I couldn’t be happier. I’ve always loved the spikier character in professional sport. And much like Baby Diego, many of the “GOATS” are indeed wankers. Sometimes this can manifest positively – Michael Jordan’s one-track-sociopathy, Maradona’s antics, the whole concept of Ian Botham. Other times, well, it can all go a bit “CR7”. Right now, it could go either way for Jude, and that’s a very exciting place for a young footballer to be. Still, there is a quiet sense of disappointment that Bellingham is not the boy scout that right-minded Britain wanted. This reveals a strange desire for absolute deference from our sports stars, a prefect fetish, a Matthew Pinsent ideal.

It’s a habit that heaps undue pressure on young people who are already under extreme pressure, and it often manifests badly. The tabloids are sapped of power today, but their “build ‘em up and bring ‘em down” attitude lives on across a variety of media forms. The medium may be different, but the message is the same. Bellingham’s predicament calls to mind David Beckham and Wayne Rooney being lauded and destroyed within the space of a tournament, but also people with blue hearts in their Twitter bios @-ing Marcus Rashford every time some perceived injustice came along, or GQ putting Raheem Sterling in angel wings on its cover. Somehow, he is saddling both TalkSport scorn and liberal Britain’s delusions. Both camps seem to hold the same belief that these young athletes need to represent something greater than themselves, then discard them when they fail to reach those standards.

Playing abroad for most of his young career, Bellingham has largely avoided this nonsense. But now, with England in the quarter-finals, the Establishment stare is upon him. It’s a tricky one, because by no means is he playing well right now, and by no means should he be immune from criticism. A few more forward passes to his teammates, and a little less mouthing off at the linesman wouldn’t go amiss either. But ultimately, football is defined by tiny moments of genius, and Bellingham seems to provide those in abundance. If England win tonight, there’s a high chance it’ll be because he’s in the squad.

[See also: TikTok will destroy our sense of political history]

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