by Dom Smith
Jude Bellingham is swiftly becoming a candidate for the best player at this World Cup, let alone the best young player. He’s not a star in the making — he’s just a star.
What is there left to say about England’s best performer in Qatar? Jude Bellingham headed into this World Cup as the most valuable footballer in the world, according to CIES. Crikey. What does that make him now?
Bellingham is England’s teenage sensation. Their 19-year-old box-to-box extraordinaire. Their youngest player but already one of their best. A player with erudition and articulacy beyond his years, and a lung capacity that pips Michael Phelps to gold.
It truly has been a bizarre World Cup. There have been so many shock results when lesser nations made major forces look second rate and exposed them on the counter-attack. Dear Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Japan, welcome to the big time. But this World Cup has stood out in another peculiar way.Embed from Getty Images
As John Muller of The Athletic rightly asked, “Why is everyone’s best player either under 23 or over 30? What happened for seven years”? Besides the otherworldly Lionel Messi and the king of international football, Olivier Giroud, this has been the children’s World Cup. An opportunity for the world-famous as well as previously unlauded youngsters to reach over from the passenger seat and take control of the steering wheel. The old guard have been rudely shown the door.
The best performers at this World Cup have been players unburdened by a great deal of domestic game time. There is a reason why Chelsea strugglers Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic looked as fit as anyone on the pitch whenever they represented Morocco and the US respectively. Yet Bellingham is the freak-of-nature anomaly who ruins the otherwise beautiful datasets produced by statisticians. Among the England squad, only Harry Kane headed to Qatar on the back of more match minutes for his club than Bellingham’s 1,918 so far this season. Bellingham has looked as fresh as a daisy.
Bellingham — tracking back to assist Declan Rice, rotating and passing forward, running in behind intelligently, assisting, scoring — has led the way. If France’s talismanic 23-year-old Kylian Mbappé has outgrown his young star tag and now becomes the master, Bellingham embodies the apprentice. They lock horns on Saturday as England and France play for a single spot in the World Cup semi-finals.
FIFA’s process for selecting man of the matches in this tournament has mirrored a popularity contest, rewarding social media followings rather than imperious performances. Nevertheless, Bukayo Saka won the award in England’s opener against Iran; Marcus Rashford against Wales; Kane against Senegal. Bellingham could have won any of them without any complaints.Embed from Getty Images
Iran were terrible against England — not their defensively astute and offensively potent selves. Their minds looked to be elsewhere, and given the political situation in Iran right now they could be forgiven for being so. Bellingham, though, took full advantage and dictated proceedings. When Sir Alex Ferguson was manager of Manchester United, he was once asked to describe what he liked so much about his South Korean midfielder Park Ji-sung. He said that if Park had yellow paint on the bottom of his boots, by the end of each match not a single blade of grass would still be green.
Bellingham’s effect for England against the Iranians was similar. He started alongside Mason Mount as a roaming No 8, with Rice protecting the two of them from a slightly deeper position. He opened the scoring with his first England goal. After struggling against the United States in a match when all of England’s players were below par and had been sussed out by the USA, Wales — like Iran — struggled to quash Bellingham’s ubiquity and his energy. This time he partnered Jordan Henderson rather than Mount. England had thrashed Iran 6–2 with Mount and Bellingham as their advanced midfielders. Against Wales they played even better. They won 3–0, and soon fans were calling to see the Liverpool captain partner Bellingham once more.
He did. And this time Bellingham put in his best performance yet this winter, his lung-busting industry pulling Senegal’s defence this way and that. He said he “saw a white shirt in my periphery…” and squared for Henderson to score England’s opener.Embed from Getty Images
Then came the moment by which Bellingham’s exceptional World Cup may well be remembered in years to come. Make no mistake, whether England win it or not, no one will be forgetting Bellingham’s impact in Qatar in a hurry. Bellingham won the ball on the edge of his own area, with Senegal overly committed in attack and the half-time whistle just seconds away. He ran powerfully, squeezing between two midfielders, and just about kept his balance in order to play wide for Foden. Then it was Foden squaring for Kane, a first touch to control, and a second touch as Kane thundered home his first of the tournament.
It was a goal made by the guile and poise of a player for whom labels such as ‘world-class’ are not a matter of if but when. Hey Jude, fancy producing a driving run like that against France on Saturday?
Bellingham completed 100 percent of his long passes against the Senegalese as well as all four of his attempted tackles, and got England up and running by assisting Henderson just when England were looking fallible and flirting with early nerves.
Albeit he’s not a striker, the Borussia Dortmund’s midfielder has evoked memories of Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004. Alan Hansen may well have believed you actually can win anything with kids if the kids he was playing with were of the quality of England’s proudest export.
Southgate started Bellingham, 19, as well as Saka, 21, and Foden, 22, against Senegal. When asked why he has shown such faith in his young guns in this World Cup, Gareth Southgate replied: “We feel that it’s time for them to be given their head.” If anything, Bellingham ought to have been given his sooner.Embed from Getty Images
Bellingham was tireless yet effortless against Senegal, just as against Iran and Wales. England face the defending world champions next and that will require tiring effort and a step up in performance. France, like Southgate’s side, fared poorly in the Nations League and headed to Qatar lacking form and admirers. But, like England, they have caught fire in the desert. It will be tense, tight, nervy, and incredibly tough to call, but we must remember one thing. England don’t have a star in the making. They have a star.
The feeling in this country about Bellingham was summed up aptly after Sunday’s round of 16 win by Foden, who produced his best display in an England shirt.
Asked about Bellingham’s rising influence on the team, Foden said: “I don’t want to big him up too much because he’s still young… but, mate, he’s one of the most gifted players I’ve ever seen. I don’t see a weakness in his game; he’s got everything. I’m sure he’s going to be the best midfielder in the world.”
Written by Dom Smith; sub-edited by Luke Widdowson