All grown up

Jude Bellingham has gone from being a Birmingham boy to Dortmund’s main man in the blink of an eye. But that meteoric rise didn’t happen by chance: it’s been built on a foundation of hard work and smart decisions. And that, as the England star told Ian Holyman, gives him the freedom to have some fun…

PHOTOGRAPHY Vera Loitzsch

Interview
Let’s just get one thing straight: you can’t simply pigeonhole Jude Bellingham as a remarkable young man. At 19, yes, he’s most certainly youthful. But what he has done on the pitch, and especially how he conducts himself off it, would be remarkable for anyone regardless of age. That said, he is undoubtedly an icon of precocity. His CV boasts a first-team debut for Birmingham City aged barely 16 (a feat even he admits he wasn’t completely ready for) and only Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney have become full England internationals at a younger age. But if you too had been talking to the man leaning casually against a post at Dortmund’s training ground, what would have struck you most is the extent of his maturity. 

And it’s not just the kind of maturity that gets spoken about ‘in one so young’.The natural footballing talent in his feet has been accompanied by an uncanny ability to keep those same feet firmly rooted on the ground that he covers so gracefully in the colours of Borussia Dortmund. It is one of the essential ingredients required to take talent to the top level and has also been noticed at his club: coach Edin Terzic hands the teenage midfielder the armband when World Cup-winning defender Mats Hummels, who usually captains the side in the absence of the injured Marco Reus, cannot lead the team out.

That’s not to say Bellingham is all work and no play. He readily admits, finally betraying his age with a boyish grin, that his public persona is not exactly the same as his private one; when he’s not brushing up on his German, he’s keen to enjoy his downtime like any other teenager. But he happily acknowledges the boundaries that his job places on his behaviour, without suggesting any sense of sacrifice: his focus on football and fully exploiting his enormous potential remains front and centre.

Draw up the blend of qualities required to become a world-beating footballer and you would probably find nearly all of them in Bellingham. You wonder just how far he might go, having already made such giant strides in such a short time. Perhaps we’ll soon see him joined by his 17-year-old brother Jobe, who is following the fraternal blueprint as a first-teamer at Birmingham City and was Jude’s regular opponent when the pair were growing up in the Midlands. Whatever happens, Jude is definitely in the mood. 

Let’s start at the beginning: do you remember that moment where you went, ‘Hang on Jude, you’re pretty good at this’?

In all honesty, no. I always just went out on the pitch to play football to win. I knew areas that I wanted to improve on and, obviously, I had dreams in the game, but I couldn’t tell you a moment where I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to make it.” I still look at myself sometimes and think, “I can do more and I can be more.” I always talk with my dad, saying how we need another 100 games until I can say that I’ve made it, just to make sure that I can stay on my toes and keep reaching for the next dreams.

How hard is it to always be looking to that next objective like that? Is it a challenge?

It’s just the way people at this level are wired. I’m still 19 – I’ve won maybe one trophy in my career and it’s not enough. I want to win way more, and I want to push the boundaries of my potential and talent. I’m around people all the time who have that exact same mindset, and when you’re in every day around those kinds of people, it’s natural that you want to win for yourself but also for them. All our dreams are aligned when we are playing together.

How difficult was it to find the balance between academia and sport when you were growing up?

It was tough, because teachers would always ask me, “What do you want to be?” and I’d just say, “Footballer.” They’d be like, “Alright, yeah. Now, seriously, what do you want to do?” The majority of the time I was out of lessons training with some of the older lads but when I was in lessons I knew I had to focus, because I’d be stopped from playing football if I wasn’t 100 per cent at it. So I made sure I did everything properly but it was tough, because I was sitting in lessons and all I was thinking about was playing football. But I suppose that’s part of life as you get older, just juggling things. And I made it a useful experience for me coming into this part of my life, where I’m managing more stuff off the pitch than on the pitch.

“At home I’m like any normal kid: I want to have a laugh, I want to mess around a little bit”
Celebrating a goal whilst he was at Birmingham City FC

Your younger brother Jobe is also making some impressive strides in the game. What were football matches between the Bellingham brothers like as kids?

We had a patch of grass outside the house that we’d always go and play on. We’d be out there from morning until night, especially in the summer when we didn’t have school, and it would always end with us two as best mates – or, like, the worst enemies ever. The number of times we came in with tears streaming down our faces are countless, but they’re the kinds of days you remember even though they’re terrible at the time. It was always a laugh and it was always good because I had to test myself – and I’m sure my brother feels the same.

Were there Champions League matches being played out between the two of you?

Every game we played, we always said it was the Champions League final. We’d make up teams and make up stadiums that we’d play in. We must have played about 1,000 Champions League finals on that little patch of grass. That was always the goal: to play at the highest level in the Champions League. I’m doing it now and I’m sure Jobe is going to get the chance to one day.

What does it mean to you to be playing in the Champions League? Do you have to pinch yourself?

It has always been my favourite competition. I’ve always loved it more than any other format of football and growing up, I always said that I wanted to play at Dortmund’s stadium with the big Yellow Wall. The [1-1 draw at home to Sevilla on Matchday 4] was the first time we’ve had 80,000 at a Champions League game and it was brilliant. It gives you goosebumps every time.

“I know what level I have to be at to consider it a good game and I’m aware I have to perform. And that’s all my focus” 

You seem to be very grounded. Where does that come from?

People are always saying to me how mature I am and I don’t really see it personally. I think when I’m in interviews and stuff, you see the side of me that’s really focused on the question that you’re asking me. But at home I’m like any normal kid: I want to have a laugh, I want to mess around a little bit. But in terms of the professionalism towards the football aspect of my life, it comes from my family and the people around me. They keep me focused. Every day I know that I have to mix being out on the pitch and doing these kinds of interviews with being off the pitch and having a bit of fun. There’s a time and a place for everything.

How do you manage to keep an element of fun in what has now become your job?  

When I’m on the pitch, when I’ve got the ball, I want to do fun things: I want to go past players, do little skills and tricks. But, you know, there’s a time where I might have to smash someone or keep the ball or whatever and that’s where, even from a footballing point of view, I have to mix it. Off the pitch, maybe my idea of fun is different to people my age. They can do things I maybe can’t do and that’s alright with me; it’s part of the game and part of what I do. At the end of the day I get to come in and play football every day. I think a lot of people would swap with me so I’m not going to complain.

You came through at Birmingham City and made your first-team debut when you were just 16. Did you think you were ready?

In all honesty, probably not. I still felt I was a little bit off it physically. Mentally, I didn’t really know what to expect from the game. But when I got to the first team they weren’t afraid to tell me: “Look, if you want to play, these are the things you’ve got to improve on and you’ve got to do it quickly.” I remember my league debut; the day before I had done well in training and got in the squad, but you’re still not really expecting to play. And I’ll never forget Jeff Montero pulled his hamstring or quad and then he was like, “Are you ready?” And I was like, “Well, I’m going to have to be aren’t I?” I was getting warmed up and kind of got chucked on. And you know, all the team-mates from that day, I’ll never forget the way they guided me through the game. And obviously I scored and kind of carried on my momentum in the team until now.

The decision to move to Dortmund was a huge one for so many reasons, both personally and professionally. What was the key factor that told you it was the right move?

It was just the track record of the club with young players. Obviously I’d had a lot more time to actually make my decision because I had the lockdown. The Bundesliga started a few weeks earlier than the Championship and I got to see what the team looked like. When I watched the team I felt there were places I could really improve Dortmund and where Dortmund could really improve me. And the more I watched the team I thought, “Yeah, I’ve got a chance here.”

You seem to take everything in your stride. Are there any moments where you actually get nervous?

Not really to be honest. There’s always pressure in terms of fans, other players, media, coaches. But pressure comes from expectation and when you’re aware of the expectation of yourself, you never let the pressure get to you too much. I know what level I have to be at to consider it a good game and I’m aware I have to perform week in, week out to try and help the team win. And that’s all my focus.

You clearly have a big role in the dressing room now, with Edin Terzic making you captain for the first time against Köln in October. How was that experience? 

It was surreal before the game, when I was kind of thinking, “Wow, I’m going to captain Borussia Dortmund, one of the biggest teams in Europe.” I think that was where it really got to me but, to be fair, as soon as I got out for the warm-up and got a feel for the ball and the crowd, it was like any other game. I must have played thousands of football games from when I was about seven years old and it didn’t feel much different. I didn’t really think too much about having the armband on. I just felt, “I’ll do my game and, hopefully, we’ll win.”

What was it like to be the leader?

The coach always says to me – and he’s said to me since, in the games where Mats [Hummels] has returned and taken the armband back – “You don’t need an armband to be a leader.” The biggest part of leadership is that you lead by example with your performance, and I think everything kind of follows in terms of your communication. I’d like to think that I know what to say on the pitch and know the right things to do from experience. So yeah, I think it comes quite naturally to me but it was just special having the armband as something to show for it.

Is it just a case of playing what’s in front of you and then blocking out all the other stuff?

Well, it is exactly that to be fair. That’s the thing that people were coming up to me and saying, and I didn’t really feel like it needed to be said. They were coming up to me: “Just play the game, don’t play the occasion.” I was saying, “Well, whether I’ve got the armband or not, I’ve never played against the occasion.” I’m a competitor. It doesn’t happen every game but I want to dominate the person I’m playing against, or the people that I come up against in the game. And yeah, I was just focused on trying to win that game. But my first game as captain we actually lost, so that was a bit disappointing. Then we had another game in the Champions League [against Sevilla] where I had one of my better games in the competition and we won. It’s ups and downs, so you just have to be ready to face whatever you’re up against. 

Insight
Eye-witness account

Our regular correspondent Simon Hart was in town to cover Sevilla on Matchday 3 – but it was a certain Dortmund player who commanded his attention

There is something about a night under the lights of the Sánchez-Pizjuán that brings the best out of prodigious talents wearing the yellow and black of Borussia Dortmund. After the German team’s visit in 2021, one Spanish newspaper summed up Erling Haaland’s battering of the home defence with the headline ‘A monster called’. The sight of the Norwegian smashing aside defenders like a bowling ball scattering skittles has stayed with me – and there was a similar sensation watching Jude Bellingham shine in Seville on Matchday 3. 

It was the 19-year-old’s first game wearing the captain’s armband in the Champions League, making him the youngest Englishman to skipper a side in the competition. Talk about taking it in his stride. A highlights reel for the teenager would show the superb crossfield pass he drove with his left foot, beyond Jesús Navas and into the path of Raphaël Guerreiro in the lead-up to the Portuguese’s goal. And then his own magnificent strike, as he jinked past Nemanja Gudelj and stabbed the ball home with the outside of his right boot. It was the third Champions League game running in which he had found the net; with his subsequent goal against Sevilla at home on Matchday 4 he became only the third teenager – after Haaland and Kylian Mbappé – to have scored in four successive appearances in the competition. 

His UEFA Player of the Match award in Seville was a logical conclusion. What really caught my eye though were two snapshots that underlined a rare maturity. Early in the contest when Emre Can – nine years his senior – showed his annoyance after overhitting a pass, up popped Bellingham offering a pat of encouragement. Then there was my own encounter with the teenager: a post-match interview for UEFA TV. Afterwards he stepped forward, shook my hand and actually said thank you. 

An exceptional young footballer who has unusually good manners to boot. 

And it’s not just the kind of maturity that gets spoken about ‘in one so young’.The natural footballing talent in his feet has been accompanied by an uncanny ability to keep those same feet firmly rooted on the ground that he covers so gracefully in the colours of Borussia Dortmund. It is one of the essential ingredients required to take talent to the top level and has also been noticed at his club: coach Edin Terzic hands the teenage midfielder the armband when World Cup-winning defender Mats Hummels, who usually captains the side in the absence of the injured Marco Reus, cannot lead the team out.

That’s not to say Bellingham is all work and no play. He readily admits, finally betraying his age with a boyish grin, that his public persona is not exactly the same as his private one; when he’s not brushing up on his German, he’s keen to enjoy his downtime like any other teenager. But he happily acknowledges the boundaries that his job places on his behaviour, without suggesting any sense of sacrifice: his focus on football and fully exploiting his enormous potential remains front and centre.

Draw up the blend of qualities required to become a world-beating footballer and you would probably find nearly all of them in Bellingham. You wonder just how far he might go, having already made such giant strides in such a short time. Perhaps we’ll soon see him joined by his 17-year-old brother Jobe, who is following the fraternal blueprint as a first-teamer at Birmingham City and was Jude’s regular opponent when the pair were growing up in the Midlands. Whatever happens, Jude is definitely in the mood. 

Let’s start at the beginning: do you remember that moment where you went, ‘Hang on Jude, you’re pretty good at this’?

In all honesty, no. I always just went out on the pitch to play football to win. I knew areas that I wanted to improve on and, obviously, I had dreams in the game, but I couldn’t tell you a moment where I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to make it.” I still look at myself sometimes and think, “I can do more and I can be more.” I always talk with my dad, saying how we need another 100 games until I can say that I’ve made it, just to make sure that I can stay on my toes and keep reaching for the next dreams.

How hard is it to always be looking to that next objective like that? Is it a challenge?

It’s just the way people at this level are wired. I’m still 19 – I’ve won maybe one trophy in my career and it’s not enough. I want to win way more, and I want to push the boundaries of my potential and talent. I’m around people all the time who have that exact same mindset, and when you’re in every day around those kinds of people, it’s natural that you want to win for yourself but also for them. All our dreams are aligned when we are playing together.

How difficult was it to find the balance between academia and sport when you were growing up?

It was tough, because teachers would always ask me, “What do you want to be?” and I’d just say, “Footballer.” They’d be like, “Alright, yeah. Now, seriously, what do you want to do?” The majority of the time I was out of lessons training with some of the older lads but when I was in lessons I knew I had to focus, because I’d be stopped from playing football if I wasn’t 100 per cent at it. So I made sure I did everything properly but it was tough, because I was sitting in lessons and all I was thinking about was playing football. But I suppose that’s part of life as you get older, just juggling things. And I made it a useful experience for me coming into this part of my life, where I’m managing more stuff off the pitch than on the pitch.

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“At home I’m like any normal kid: I want to have a laugh, I want to mess around a little bit”
Celebrating a goal whilst he was at Birmingham City FC

Your younger brother Jobe is also making some impressive strides in the game. What were football matches between the Bellingham brothers like as kids?

We had a patch of grass outside the house that we’d always go and play on. We’d be out there from morning until night, especially in the summer when we didn’t have school, and it would always end with us two as best mates – or, like, the worst enemies ever. The number of times we came in with tears streaming down our faces are countless, but they’re the kinds of days you remember even though they’re terrible at the time. It was always a laugh and it was always good because I had to test myself – and I’m sure my brother feels the same.

Were there Champions League matches being played out between the two of you?

Every game we played, we always said it was the Champions League final. We’d make up teams and make up stadiums that we’d play in. We must have played about 1,000 Champions League finals on that little patch of grass. That was always the goal: to play at the highest level in the Champions League. I’m doing it now and I’m sure Jobe is going to get the chance to one day.

What does it mean to you to be playing in the Champions League? Do you have to pinch yourself?

It has always been my favourite competition. I’ve always loved it more than any other format of football and growing up, I always said that I wanted to play at Dortmund’s stadium with the big Yellow Wall. The [1-1 draw at home to Sevilla on Matchday 4] was the first time we’ve had 80,000 at a Champions League game and it was brilliant. It gives you goosebumps every time.

“I know what level I have to be at to consider it a good game and I’m aware I have to perform. And that’s all my focus” 

You seem to be very grounded. Where does that come from?

People are always saying to me how mature I am and I don’t really see it personally. I think when I’m in interviews and stuff, you see the side of me that’s really focused on the question that you’re asking me. But at home I’m like any normal kid: I want to have a laugh, I want to mess around a little bit. But in terms of the professionalism towards the football aspect of my life, it comes from my family and the people around me. They keep me focused. Every day I know that I have to mix being out on the pitch and doing these kinds of interviews with being off the pitch and having a bit of fun. There’s a time and a place for everything.

How do you manage to keep an element of fun in what has now become your job?  

When I’m on the pitch, when I’ve got the ball, I want to do fun things: I want to go past players, do little skills and tricks. But, you know, there’s a time where I might have to smash someone or keep the ball or whatever and that’s where, even from a footballing point of view, I have to mix it. Off the pitch, maybe my idea of fun is different to people my age. They can do things I maybe can’t do and that’s alright with me; it’s part of the game and part of what I do. At the end of the day I get to come in and play football every day. I think a lot of people would swap with me so I’m not going to complain.

You came through at Birmingham City and made your first-team debut when you were just 16. Did you think you were ready?

In all honesty, probably not. I still felt I was a little bit off it physically. Mentally, I didn’t really know what to expect from the game. But when I got to the first team they weren’t afraid to tell me: “Look, if you want to play, these are the things you’ve got to improve on and you’ve got to do it quickly.” I remember my league debut; the day before I had done well in training and got in the squad, but you’re still not really expecting to play. And I’ll never forget Jeff Montero pulled his hamstring or quad and then he was like, “Are you ready?” And I was like, “Well, I’m going to have to be aren’t I?” I was getting warmed up and kind of got chucked on. And you know, all the team-mates from that day, I’ll never forget the way they guided me through the game. And obviously I scored and kind of carried on my momentum in the team until now.

The decision to move to Dortmund was a huge one for so many reasons, both personally and professionally. What was the key factor that told you it was the right move?

It was just the track record of the club with young players. Obviously I’d had a lot more time to actually make my decision because I had the lockdown. The Bundesliga started a few weeks earlier than the Championship and I got to see what the team looked like. When I watched the team I felt there were places I could really improve Dortmund and where Dortmund could really improve me. And the more I watched the team I thought, “Yeah, I’ve got a chance here.”

You seem to take everything in your stride. Are there any moments where you actually get nervous?

Not really to be honest. There’s always pressure in terms of fans, other players, media, coaches. But pressure comes from expectation and when you’re aware of the expectation of yourself, you never let the pressure get to you too much. I know what level I have to be at to consider it a good game and I’m aware I have to perform week in, week out to try and help the team win. And that’s all my focus.

You clearly have a big role in the dressing room now, with Edin Terzic making you captain for the first time against Köln in October. How was that experience? 

It was surreal before the game, when I was kind of thinking, “Wow, I’m going to captain Borussia Dortmund, one of the biggest teams in Europe.” I think that was where it really got to me but, to be fair, as soon as I got out for the warm-up and got a feel for the ball and the crowd, it was like any other game. I must have played thousands of football games from when I was about seven years old and it didn’t feel much different. I didn’t really think too much about having the armband on. I just felt, “I’ll do my game and, hopefully, we’ll win.”

What was it like to be the leader?

The coach always says to me – and he’s said to me since, in the games where Mats [Hummels] has returned and taken the armband back – “You don’t need an armband to be a leader.” The biggest part of leadership is that you lead by example with your performance, and I think everything kind of follows in terms of your communication. I’d like to think that I know what to say on the pitch and know the right things to do from experience. So yeah, I think it comes quite naturally to me but it was just special having the armband as something to show for it.

Is it just a case of playing what’s in front of you and then blocking out all the other stuff?

Well, it is exactly that to be fair. That’s the thing that people were coming up to me and saying, and I didn’t really feel like it needed to be said. They were coming up to me: “Just play the game, don’t play the occasion.” I was saying, “Well, whether I’ve got the armband or not, I’ve never played against the occasion.” I’m a competitor. It doesn’t happen every game but I want to dominate the person I’m playing against, or the people that I come up against in the game. And yeah, I was just focused on trying to win that game. But my first game as captain we actually lost, so that was a bit disappointing. Then we had another game in the Champions League [against Sevilla] where I had one of my better games in the competition and we won. It’s ups and downs, so you just have to be ready to face whatever you’re up against. 

Insight
Eye-witness account

Our regular correspondent Simon Hart was in town to cover Sevilla on Matchday 3 – but it was a certain Dortmund player who commanded his attention

There is something about a night under the lights of the Sánchez-Pizjuán that brings the best out of prodigious talents wearing the yellow and black of Borussia Dortmund. After the German team’s visit in 2021, one Spanish newspaper summed up Erling Haaland’s battering of the home defence with the headline ‘A monster called’. The sight of the Norwegian smashing aside defenders like a bowling ball scattering skittles has stayed with me – and there was a similar sensation watching Jude Bellingham shine in Seville on Matchday 3. 

It was the 19-year-old’s first game wearing the captain’s armband in the Champions League, making him the youngest Englishman to skipper a side in the competition. Talk about taking it in his stride. A highlights reel for the teenager would show the superb crossfield pass he drove with his left foot, beyond Jesús Navas and into the path of Raphaël Guerreiro in the lead-up to the Portuguese’s goal. And then his own magnificent strike, as he jinked past Nemanja Gudelj and stabbed the ball home with the outside of his right boot. It was the third Champions League game running in which he had found the net; with his subsequent goal against Sevilla at home on Matchday 4 he became only the third teenager – after Haaland and Kylian Mbappé – to have scored in four successive appearances in the competition. 

His UEFA Player of the Match award in Seville was a logical conclusion. What really caught my eye though were two snapshots that underlined a rare maturity. Early in the contest when Emre Can – nine years his senior – showed his annoyance after overhitting a pass, up popped Bellingham offering a pat of encouragement. Then there was my own encounter with the teenager: a post-match interview for UEFA TV. Afterwards he stepped forward, shook my hand and actually said thank you. 

An exceptional young footballer who has unusually good manners to boot. 

And it’s not just the kind of maturity that gets spoken about ‘in one so young’.The natural footballing talent in his feet has been accompanied by an uncanny ability to keep those same feet firmly rooted on the ground that he covers so gracefully in the colours of Borussia Dortmund. It is one of the essential ingredients required to take talent to the top level and has also been noticed at his club: coach Edin Terzic hands the teenage midfielder the armband when World Cup-winning defender Mats Hummels, who usually captains the side in the absence of the injured Marco Reus, cannot lead the team out.

That’s not to say Bellingham is all work and no play. He readily admits, finally betraying his age with a boyish grin, that his public persona is not exactly the same as his private one; when he’s not brushing up on his German, he’s keen to enjoy his downtime like any other teenager. But he happily acknowledges the boundaries that his job places on his behaviour, without suggesting any sense of sacrifice: his focus on football and fully exploiting his enormous potential remains front and centre.

Draw up the blend of qualities required to become a world-beating footballer and you would probably find nearly all of them in Bellingham. You wonder just how far he might go, having already made such giant strides in such a short time. Perhaps we’ll soon see him joined by his 17-year-old brother Jobe, who is following the fraternal blueprint as a first-teamer at Birmingham City and was Jude’s regular opponent when the pair were growing up in the Midlands. Whatever happens, Jude is definitely in the mood. 

Let’s start at the beginning: do you remember that moment where you went, ‘Hang on Jude, you’re pretty good at this’?

In all honesty, no. I always just went out on the pitch to play football to win. I knew areas that I wanted to improve on and, obviously, I had dreams in the game, but I couldn’t tell you a moment where I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to make it.” I still look at myself sometimes and think, “I can do more and I can be more.” I always talk with my dad, saying how we need another 100 games until I can say that I’ve made it, just to make sure that I can stay on my toes and keep reaching for the next dreams.

How hard is it to always be looking to that next objective like that? Is it a challenge?

It’s just the way people at this level are wired. I’m still 19 – I’ve won maybe one trophy in my career and it’s not enough. I want to win way more, and I want to push the boundaries of my potential and talent. I’m around people all the time who have that exact same mindset, and when you’re in every day around those kinds of people, it’s natural that you want to win for yourself but also for them. All our dreams are aligned when we are playing together.

How difficult was it to find the balance between academia and sport when you were growing up?

It was tough, because teachers would always ask me, “What do you want to be?” and I’d just say, “Footballer.” They’d be like, “Alright, yeah. Now, seriously, what do you want to do?” The majority of the time I was out of lessons training with some of the older lads but when I was in lessons I knew I had to focus, because I’d be stopped from playing football if I wasn’t 100 per cent at it. So I made sure I did everything properly but it was tough, because I was sitting in lessons and all I was thinking about was playing football. But I suppose that’s part of life as you get older, just juggling things. And I made it a useful experience for me coming into this part of my life, where I’m managing more stuff off the pitch than on the pitch.

“At home I’m like any normal kid: I want to have a laugh, I want to mess around a little bit”
Celebrating a goal whilst he was at Birmingham City FC

Your younger brother Jobe is also making some impressive strides in the game. What were football matches between the Bellingham brothers like as kids?

We had a patch of grass outside the house that we’d always go and play on. We’d be out there from morning until night, especially in the summer when we didn’t have school, and it would always end with us two as best mates – or, like, the worst enemies ever. The number of times we came in with tears streaming down our faces are countless, but they’re the kinds of days you remember even though they’re terrible at the time. It was always a laugh and it was always good because I had to test myself – and I’m sure my brother feels the same.

Were there Champions League matches being played out between the two of you?

Every game we played, we always said it was the Champions League final. We’d make up teams and make up stadiums that we’d play in. We must have played about 1,000 Champions League finals on that little patch of grass. That was always the goal: to play at the highest level in the Champions League. I’m doing it now and I’m sure Jobe is going to get the chance to one day.

What does it mean to you to be playing in the Champions League? Do you have to pinch yourself?

It has always been my favourite competition. I’ve always loved it more than any other format of football and growing up, I always said that I wanted to play at Dortmund’s stadium with the big Yellow Wall. The [1-1 draw at home to Sevilla on Matchday 4] was the first time we’ve had 80,000 at a Champions League game and it was brilliant. It gives you goosebumps every time.

“I know what level I have to be at to consider it a good game and I’m aware I have to perform. And that’s all my focus” 

You seem to be very grounded. Where does that come from?

People are always saying to me how mature I am and I don’t really see it personally. I think when I’m in interviews and stuff, you see the side of me that’s really focused on the question that you’re asking me. But at home I’m like any normal kid: I want to have a laugh, I want to mess around a little bit. But in terms of the professionalism towards the football aspect of my life, it comes from my family and the people around me. They keep me focused. Every day I know that I have to mix being out on the pitch and doing these kinds of interviews with being off the pitch and having a bit of fun. There’s a time and a place for everything.

How do you manage to keep an element of fun in what has now become your job?  

When I’m on the pitch, when I’ve got the ball, I want to do fun things: I want to go past players, do little skills and tricks. But, you know, there’s a time where I might have to smash someone or keep the ball or whatever and that’s where, even from a footballing point of view, I have to mix it. Off the pitch, maybe my idea of fun is different to people my age. They can do things I maybe can’t do and that’s alright with me; it’s part of the game and part of what I do. At the end of the day I get to come in and play football every day. I think a lot of people would swap with me so I’m not going to complain.

You came through at Birmingham City and made your first-team debut when you were just 16. Did you think you were ready?

In all honesty, probably not. I still felt I was a little bit off it physically. Mentally, I didn’t really know what to expect from the game. But when I got to the first team they weren’t afraid to tell me: “Look, if you want to play, these are the things you’ve got to improve on and you’ve got to do it quickly.” I remember my league debut; the day before I had done well in training and got in the squad, but you’re still not really expecting to play. And I’ll never forget Jeff Montero pulled his hamstring or quad and then he was like, “Are you ready?” And I was like, “Well, I’m going to have to be aren’t I?” I was getting warmed up and kind of got chucked on. And you know, all the team-mates from that day, I’ll never forget the way they guided me through the game. And obviously I scored and kind of carried on my momentum in the team until now.

The decision to move to Dortmund was a huge one for so many reasons, both personally and professionally. What was the key factor that told you it was the right move?

It was just the track record of the club with young players. Obviously I’d had a lot more time to actually make my decision because I had the lockdown. The Bundesliga started a few weeks earlier than the Championship and I got to see what the team looked like. When I watched the team I felt there were places I could really improve Dortmund and where Dortmund could really improve me. And the more I watched the team I thought, “Yeah, I’ve got a chance here.”

You seem to take everything in your stride. Are there any moments where you actually get nervous?

Not really to be honest. There’s always pressure in terms of fans, other players, media, coaches. But pressure comes from expectation and when you’re aware of the expectation of yourself, you never let the pressure get to you too much. I know what level I have to be at to consider it a good game and I’m aware I have to perform week in, week out to try and help the team win. And that’s all my focus.

You clearly have a big role in the dressing room now, with Edin Terzic making you captain for the first time against Köln in October. How was that experience? 

It was surreal before the game, when I was kind of thinking, “Wow, I’m going to captain Borussia Dortmund, one of the biggest teams in Europe.” I think that was where it really got to me but, to be fair, as soon as I got out for the warm-up and got a feel for the ball and the crowd, it was like any other game. I must have played thousands of football games from when I was about seven years old and it didn’t feel much different. I didn’t really think too much about having the armband on. I just felt, “I’ll do my game and, hopefully, we’ll win.”

What was it like to be the leader?

The coach always says to me – and he’s said to me since, in the games where Mats [Hummels] has returned and taken the armband back – “You don’t need an armband to be a leader.” The biggest part of leadership is that you lead by example with your performance, and I think everything kind of follows in terms of your communication. I’d like to think that I know what to say on the pitch and know the right things to do from experience. So yeah, I think it comes quite naturally to me but it was just special having the armband as something to show for it.

Is it just a case of playing what’s in front of you and then blocking out all the other stuff?

Well, it is exactly that to be fair. That’s the thing that people were coming up to me and saying, and I didn’t really feel like it needed to be said. They were coming up to me: “Just play the game, don’t play the occasion.” I was saying, “Well, whether I’ve got the armband or not, I’ve never played against the occasion.” I’m a competitor. It doesn’t happen every game but I want to dominate the person I’m playing against, or the people that I come up against in the game. And yeah, I was just focused on trying to win that game. But my first game as captain we actually lost, so that was a bit disappointing. Then we had another game in the Champions League [against Sevilla] where I had one of my better games in the competition and we won. It’s ups and downs, so you just have to be ready to face whatever you’re up against. 

Insight
Eye-witness account

Our regular correspondent Simon Hart was in town to cover Sevilla on Matchday 3 – but it was a certain Dortmund player who commanded his attention

There is something about a night under the lights of the Sánchez-Pizjuán that brings the best out of prodigious talents wearing the yellow and black of Borussia Dortmund. After the German team’s visit in 2021, one Spanish newspaper summed up Erling Haaland’s battering of the home defence with the headline ‘A monster called’. The sight of the Norwegian smashing aside defenders like a bowling ball scattering skittles has stayed with me – and there was a similar sensation watching Jude Bellingham shine in Seville on Matchday 3. 

It was the 19-year-old’s first game wearing the captain’s armband in the Champions League, making him the youngest Englishman to skipper a side in the competition. Talk about taking it in his stride. A highlights reel for the teenager would show the superb crossfield pass he drove with his left foot, beyond Jesús Navas and into the path of Raphaël Guerreiro in the lead-up to the Portuguese’s goal. And then his own magnificent strike, as he jinked past Nemanja Gudelj and stabbed the ball home with the outside of his right boot. It was the third Champions League game running in which he had found the net; with his subsequent goal against Sevilla at home on Matchday 4 he became only the third teenager – after Haaland and Kylian Mbappé – to have scored in four successive appearances in the competition. 

His UEFA Player of the Match award in Seville was a logical conclusion. What really caught my eye though were two snapshots that underlined a rare maturity. Early in the contest when Emre Can – nine years his senior – showed his annoyance after overhitting a pass, up popped Bellingham offering a pat of encouragement. Then there was my own encounter with the teenager: a post-match interview for UEFA TV. Afterwards he stepped forward, shook my hand and actually said thank you. 

An exceptional young footballer who has unusually good manners to boot. 

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