The polished marble floors of the Royal Suite at the Savoy Hotel, London. Decked in Gucci. Loafers, socks, suit. Staring down the camera. Red leather throne.
The San Mames stadium, Bilbao. The rugged Basque region of Spain. Adidas JB5 boots. Wearing Zinedine Zidane’s old No 5. Staring down the home fans. Goal scored.
He wears it all well. Jude Bellingham is a man at ease. The body language in both images is remarkably similar. Chest out, chin up, arms wide — open to a world he looks like devouring.
Bellingham’s debut for Real Madrid came with a goal and a ‘here I am’ celebration that infuriated the locals. England’s own, but a young man — he’s 20 — about whom we know little. No Gazza-like front-page scrutiny of every tremble and guzzle from a foreign field.
Today, our Jude will take to the field in Real’s remodelled stadium, costing £860million and four years in the making. It has a 360-degree scoreboard, retractable pitch and roof, and a stunning steel wrap-around on which images of illustrious Madrid players of the past will be projected.
England's Jude Bellingham pictured in a Gucci suit and loafers at the Savoy Hotel in London - image supplied courtesy of SWM.
Real Madrid's Bellingham has netted a remarkable four goals in three games from midfield
The grand opening with the young wizard at the heart of it, making his home debut shortly after 3pm local time.
If the undulating steel strips that encase the 58metre-high, space-station style arena are to project images of such greats as Zidane, inside there will be Stourbridge-born Bellingham, walking in the footsteps of giants.
His start has been extraordinary: four goals in his first three games and La Liga’s Player of the Month for August. But it’s much more than that. The poise and confidence with which he has gone about winning over the dressing room, the supporters and the media have surprised everyone, even Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and his chief executive Jose Angel Sanchez.
Both are grinning like they have just beaten the house in Monte Carlo, because going all-in on Bellingham instead of trying to prise Kylian Mbappe from Paris Saint-Germain could have backfired. Had the failure to sign the France star provoked an early-season slump, today’s first home game could have been a huge anti-climax, with supporters forgetting their stunning surroundings and singing ‘Where is Mbappe?’
Instead, after three Bellingham-inspired wins, nobody is talking about the PSG forward because there is a sense Real have something just as big on their hands.
If Mbappe is the second greatest footballer to come out of France, then Zidane is the greatest. And memories of his start at Madrid put everything into perspective.
Zidane was jeered by the fans in his first season. He was also 29, not 19, Bellingham’s age when he charmed the Madrid media in his first press conference.
And he wasn’t English. The English don’t travel well. They don’t mix, they don’t adapt. That’s the stereotype. It extends to all Brits and it is one the Spanish feel Gareth Bale reinforced.
Bellingham joined Madrid from Borussia Dortmund this summer for £88.5m rising to £113.5m
The 19-year-old Brummie was pictured in various Gucci outfits at the Savoy Hotel in London
It is among the reasons why, since Jonathan Woodgate and Michael Owen in 2004, Real had not signed an Englishman. They were offered Jack Grealish in 2021 just before Aston Villa sold him to Manchester City, but they have long since been proactive and not reactive in the market. They signed Eduardo Camavinga that summer instead, a player they had tracked since he was a 16-year-old in the Rennes youth team.
Bellingham came on to Madrid’s radar in 2018 when Andres Manzano, then director of football at Spanish third-tier club UE Cornella, alerted them to a player he had seen at Birmingham’s Wast Hills Training Ground.
UE Cornella is famed for producing young players such as Jordi Alba and Arsenal’s David Raya, and they had a collaboration agreement with Birmingham which meant Manzano would spend a week every month working closely with Kristjaan Speakman, Birmingham’s academy director.
Manzano first saw Bellingham when he was 15, but turning out in an Under 23 game. He told me in the weeks leading up to Bellingham signing for Madrid: ‘Five minutes into the match, I asked Kristjaan how old the No 7 was. I was astounded by his maturity and composure. I had to ask Kristjaan twice because I couldn’t believe this was a player born in 2003.’
Manzano was also ahead of the curve in terms of the Zidane comparisons. ‘The player I see most in him is Zidane,’ he said. ‘In part it’s the versatility. He’s capable of playing central midfield or wide; in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. He is somewhere between a No 8 and a No 10.
‘He’s an all-terrain midfielder with a lot of personality and he is so good on the ball but he also has that size, that enviable physique. I don’t like comparisons but if you ask me, that’s the one I would make. He reminds me of Zidane.
‘I’ve been lucky enough to see the development of Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Leo Messi, because they played against our teams at that age. I’ve seen how they played aged 15 and 16 and how they developed. I could see that Jude was a top player.’
When Manzano alerted Real Madrid to Bellingham, Borussia Dortmund were already well on the way to signing him. But Madrid’s chief talent spotter, Juni Calafat, began building a file on the teenager who ended up signing for the club this summer for £88.5m rising to £113.5m.
Both the media and Real Madrid's hierarchy have been impressed by Bellingham's attitude
Spanish media are now comparing the Birmingham boy to French legend Zinedine Zidane
Bellingham would probably not have gone to Madrid directly after Birmingham anyway.
He went to Carrington to speak to Manchester United before the Dortmund move, but it made more sense to go somewhere he was going to play regularly. And good sense among those advising him has abounded every step of the way, from his season in the Championship at Birmingham, to Germany and the move to Real Madrid, despite the greater riches on offer in the Premier League.
That decision to turn down Premier League interest won hearts and minds at Madrid before he was presented in June. Then came that hugely impressive media conference.
Madrid reporters, veterans of a multitude of big-name signings, were stunned at Bellingham’s presentation. They compared him favourably to older Spanish players who would freeze in a packed press room.
One in-house journalist was later impressed by Bellingham shaking their hand and thanking them after a post-match interview on the summer tour. The good manners left their mark.
Bellingham has a basic knowledge of Spanish from his school days. He is taking lessons and already throwing the occasional Spanish phrase into his interactions with the local media, who are enchanted by the new boy’s star quality.
‘This genius from Stourbridge,’ wrote columnist Tomas Roncero last weekend, as if Spain should by now be as familiar with the Dudley market town as they are with London or Manchester.
‘This Englishman with the demeanour of Zidane,’ he went on, ‘who has four goals in three games, as many as Eden Hazard scored in four years.’
Bellingham looks at home in Madrid and has already integrated well with the Real squad
Bellingham could easily break David Beckham's record for goals by an Englishman in Madrid
Again the Zidane comparison, and it’s not just a lazy one based on him wearing the same shirt number. Bellingham’s first goal, a volley into the ground following a corner on his debut, was very similar to one Zidane had scored for Madrid. And there was a long, skilful, stumbling run past several defenders in which he showed all the balance and technique of the old master.
His prolific start has led to the mention of landmarks he might pass sooner rather than later. If he scores 16 more goals, he equals David Beckham, whose 20 league goals in four seasons is the best return for any Englishman playing for Real Madrid.
Beckham was the first British player Perez signed in 2003. He possessed similar star quality, charisma that went beyond the field of play, appealing to Madrid’s desire to be the club that wants football fans the world over to fall in love with it.
The confidence shown by Bellingham to model for Gucci, and the fact he looks very much the part in that blue suit with white polka dots, are portentous. He will be the image of the club going forward.
But there is no brashness to the bold self-confidence. Bellingham has been turning up to training at Valdebebas in a Madrid taxi, much to the incredulity of the fans who congregate at the gates of the club’s Sports City facility. And on the pitch, his work rate has impressed as much as his goals.
Real Madrid goalkeeper turned television analyst Santiago Canizares says: ‘When Madrid don’t have the ball, he’s another defensive midfielder. Then when Madrid have the ball, there is not a single attack when he is not in the box.’
It’s perhaps the goals and the attacking threat that are giving Gareth Southgate most food for thought. To what extent does he use Bellingham in a similar way to Carlo Ancelotti, albeit taking into account he has Harry Kane while Ancelotti no longer has Karim Benzema? ‘He is clearly playing in a slightly different role because they lost Benzema,’ the England manager said this week.
‘Real are playing a diamond, so he is a little higher up the pitch. But whether he is a No 8 or a sort of No 10, he is a forward-running player who can affect games. We saw that in the World Cup for us.’
Bellingham’s ability to play so effectively as a No 10 will be no revelation to England because he has done it throughout his development with the national team.
Bellingham's impact at youth club Birmingham was so profound they retired his shirt number
Boss Carlo Ancelotti will be very pleased with Bellingham's contributions from midfield so far
Former England youth coach Kevin Betsy managed Bellingham at Under 15, 16 and 17 level. In an interview with Diario AS this week, he explained coaches were well aware of Bellingham’s potential for prolific scoring but reined-in his attacking game at first so that he would be forced to improve all facets of his midfield make-up.
Betsy said: ‘With England, I always knew Jude could score goals, but we were short of players who could drop and receive from the goalkeeper or the defence, and create and control possession under pressure. We decided to put Jude there for many games, even though we knew his best position was No 10.
‘If we had wanted to win every match, Jude would have played as a No 10, but it wasn’t the best thing for him and for the country in the future.’
That last phrase is particularly striking. If Bellingham’s brilliant start at Madrid is a taste of things to come, it isn’t just good for him, it will be good for England.
Kane has made a fine start at Bayern Munich and England’s 30-year-old striker ought to win heaps of silverware in Germany. But, 10 years his junior, Bellingham stands on the brink not just of trophies but driving forward one of the biggest clubs in world football for a decade.
That leadership quality was evident in last week’s win when he spotted debutant Kepa Arrizabalaga walking off the pitch at the end of the game and pushed him towards the travelling Real Madrid supporters, pointing to the top of the keeper’s head so they would applaud him.
It was also evident in the way he was the catalyst for, then the focal point of, an early-season players’ away day on the French Riviera.
Ancelotti had promised his players Saturday and Sunday off if they could pick up another win, their third straight victory of the new season.
But at 0-0 and with the clock ticking, a Sunday training session was looming until Bellingham scored the late winner, locking in a trip to the Verde Beach Club in Saint-Tropez in the process.
‘What a day,’ team-mate Aurelien Tchouameni posted on Instagram after the players’ excursion.
‘Belli’, as his team-mates call him, enjoyed the down time with the Brazilian Rodrygo, and French players Ferland Mendy and Camavinga.
Some of the older Madrid players were no less grateful for a free weekend back in Spain. ‘Boy is on fire,’ posted David Alaba on social media. ‘Baller,’ added Antonio Rudiger. ‘Magic Jude,’ commented veteran striker Joselu.
Vinicius Junior would have joined Bellingham’s party had he not needed to stay in Madrid for a scan on a hamstring injury.
He has been overtaken by the Englishman as the player whose name and number are most requested by fans for the backs of their Madrid shirts — sales are back to 2021 levels, when they spiked after the club’s last Champions League win.
Not that there is any sign of jealousy from ‘Vini’ who has taken to copying Bellingham’s goal celebration. He, along with Uruguayan midfielder Fede Valverde, Rodrygo, Camavinga, Tchouameni and Bellingham have an average age of 22 and could make up the front six in the Madrid XI for years.
They have bonded around the new signing, who also made sure he went out for dinner with fellow summer arrivals Brahim Diaz, 24, Fran Garcia, 24, and Arda Guler, 18, when he arrived at the club.
His knack for team building was honed at England youth level, where the emphasis was on players communicating with each other to form strong ties that would be evident when things got tough on the pitch.
Betsy explained in that AS interview how young players are so immersed in their phones and iPads that they can struggle to communicate socially. But not Bellingham, who was mentally very mature by the age of 13.
Bellingham pictured in a quintessentially English setting, at the Savoy Hotel with a cup of tea
Real Madrid fans have already become accustomed with Jude Bellingham's iconic celebration
Today he will be the main attraction for the 14-times European champions at the Bernabeu. ‘Time to see my new home,’ he posted on social media last week.
Then he will be off to play for England. Does the country know what it has on its hands? ‘England fans are lucky they have a player who’s going to dominate for years,’ says Spanish coach Manzano.
At Real Madrid, they have seen so many kings of world football over the years, from Alfredo di Stefano to Cristiano Ronaldo. Increasingly, they are convinced that Bellingham is the heir to the throne.
And that leather bench-seat he’s posing in at the Savoy for the Gucci shoot? It’s the hotel’s famous ‘red lift’ — the first electric elevator in London. He looks regal in it. And on the up. That much seems certain.
Pictures of Jude Bellingham supplied courtesy of SWM
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