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England put their shirt on wonderkid Jude Bellingham in Qatar

There are broadly three kinds of central midfield player in modern football. A number four, standing guard in front of the defence; a number eight, hustling from box to box; and a number 10, who plots behind the forwards, looking to score goals and create opportunities for others.

In teenage wonderkid Jude Bellingham, Gareth Southgate’s England side has all three. Since the age of 13, to call attention to his ability to play as a four, an eight and a 10, he has worn the shirt number 22.

When asked about his preferred position, Bellingham has said: “I like tackling and getting stuck in with the eight. You can dictate the play. But if a manager wants me to play in the 10 or the four, I can do it.”

At the Qatar World Cup, the 19-year-old has become the linchpin of England’s midfield, scoring the team’s first goal at the tournament in the 6-2 drubbing of Iran in their opening game.

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The son of a former non-league player, Bellingham’s stock has risen at a dizzying pace. After joining Championship club Birmingham City’s academy at the age of 7, he became its youngest-ever senior player when he made his debut in a cup game against Portsmouth aged 16 years and 38 days.

Bellingham scores England’s first goal of the World Cup in the match against Iran © Paul Childs/Reuters

He went on to play 44 times for his beloved Blues before moving to the German Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, widely seen as the greatest finishing school in European football.

“I think it’s the perfect club for me right now at this point in my development,” said Bellingham after completing his £25mn transfer in July 2020. “There’s not a better club in the world for producing young talent and developing them for the next level.”

Michael Zorc, Dortmund’s then sporting director, said at the time that Bellingham “already boasts astonishing quality with and without the ball, and has a strong mentality to boot”.

Bellingham, right, makes his debut for Birmingham City against Portsmouth in August 2019, aged just 16 years and 38 days © Dan Istitene/Getty Images

His talent was so clear to those he left behind that Birmingham City retired his shirt number, recognition that the second-tier club may never see a player with his qualities again.

“In such a remarkably short space of time Jude has become an iconic figure at Blues,” the club said upon Bellingham’s departure. “The 22 shirt has become synonymous with [him] . . . as such the club have decided it would be fitting to retire this number, to remember one of our own and to inspire others.”

More records have been broken since his move to Germany, where he has earned plaudits for his humility, maturity and caring nature. “He’s only 17, but he plays like a man,” said teammate Thorgen Hazard after Bellingham became Dortmund’s youngest-ever goalscorer in September 2020.

Bellingham celebrates with Harry Kane during the rout of Iran in Qatar. The 19-year-old has become the linchpin of England’s midfield during the tournament © Carl Recine/Reuters

That same month, Bellingham became the youngest player to appear for England’s Under-21 team — then managed by Southgate — having previously captained his national side at Under-15, Under-16 and Under-17 level.

Two months later, with Southgate in charge of the first team squad, Bellingham was promoted to the senior team and made his debut in a friendly against the Republic of Ireland. Only Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney, one of Bellingham’s childhood heroes, got their first England caps at a younger age.

At last year’s European Championships, Southgate began easing the teenager into the team as a substitute. In doing so, the manager gradually introduced Bellingham to a British audience who until then had known him mainly as a talented youngster who had left for Germany.

This summer, Bellingham cemented himself as a core part of Southgate’s team, offering a more attacking counter balance in central midfield to West Ham United’s Declan Rice, or in a three alongside Rice and Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson.

In a further sign of his rapid rise, Bellingham was in October handed the captain’s armband at Dortmund, a testament to his maturity. “It comes quite naturally to be honest,” he said after becoming the youngest player to lead out a team in the Champions League against Sevilla. “For me, it’s about trying to lead by example with my performance.”

Bellingham playing for Dortmund soon after signing for the German club from Birmingham in 2020 © Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images

After that match, pundits lavished Bellingham with praise. Former England captain Rio Ferdinand described him as “the full package”.

“What he’s doing, in his position, at his age, we haven’t seen [before],” said Ferdinand after Dortmund’s 4-1 win. “The best players of our generation . . . weren’t doing this.”

Speculation is rife about what lies next for Bellingham, who is contracted to stay with Dortmund until 2025. He has been linked with a big-money move to the Premier League; teams including Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal are all thought to be admirers.

But for now, Bellingham’s focus will be on the World Cup, with England’s next challenge coming against Senegal on Sunday evening. The prize on offer is a place in the quarter-finals and a potential contest against the champions, France.


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