The English teenager is coveted by Europe’s super clubs and there are few limits to his potential
There is a chuckle, a pause, and then an emphatic “phwoar”. A Borussia Dortmund executive is asked about Jude Bellingham’s worth and those initial reactions tell a story before he adds: “Everybody wants him, because everyone knows he can become the world’s best player. For a long time, this has not been a secret. How do you put a price on that?”
BVB have become accustomed to housing the game’s premier young talent and in Erling Haaland they have a certified future Ballon d’Or winner. Yet at the Westfalenstadion, there is still astonishment at Bellingham’s capabilities, with several long-serving technical staff at the club believing him to be the standout starlet to have entered their doors.
That is not a surprising nugget of information given the 18-year-old is at the centre of an arms race, particularly in the Premier League where Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City all have designs on recruiting him.
England’s 20-time champions, complete with a tour of Carrington and an audience with Sir Alex Ferguson, came close to landing Bellingham prior to him opting to join BVB from Birmingham City last summer.
That decision was influenced in part by Jadon Sancho’s opportunities and rise at the Bundesliga side and there is cautious optimism at Old Trafford that the teenager will follow his good friend in lining up under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who also has designs on recruiting Haaland.
Bellingham, ever increasing his knowledge, has had regular conversations with Sancho about the set-up and vibe at United. However, that won’t be seen as an inside edge in what will be a heated transfer battle for the midfielder. Neither will he be swayed by idolising Steven Gerrard, joining Chelsea’s collection of Europe’s outstanding youngsters, nor the extravagances City can afford to him.
Bellingham counts a “strength in character” as key to mapping out his career and those circling him are well aware that the kid who can become king wants a comprehensive development blueprint rather than a major pay day.
This has already been illustrated. United’s offer, along with several others including from Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, was significantly more lucrative than Dortmund’s proposal last year. But BVB had sketched out a plan that promised Bellingham regular starts, experience on the European stage, and the evolution into a full international within two years.
“It was a decision that was quite easy in the end,” he would admit a few months ago, referencing Dortmund’s track record in development.
Michael Zorc, BVB’s transfer chief, would credit Bellingham for sketching out his most important decision thus far based “primarily on sporting perspective.”
That fundamental is not expected to change and anyone that knows the player well, canvassed about what the future holds, parrots a similar line: Jude’s mentality will ensure he picks the club that will challenge and advance his game most, rather than do best for his bank account.
To hear testimony of Bellingham’s character, to learn about his support structure in parents Mark and Denise, and to read scouting reports that stretch back to when he was 13, it becomes apparent that the grounded character in the middle of all this fuss is wanted for more than his obvious on-pitch brilliance.
Sam Manoochehri, an ex-youth development coach at Birmingham City, who oversaw Bellingham’s progress for four years, emphasises his almost insatiable need for improvement.
“I have never seen a mentality more elite than his,” he said of Bellingham.
“When I worked with him, when something was tough, he loved it. I can remember games when he wanted to play himself at centre-half to test himself. Jude would actively go and seek the challenge without having to be pushed from the coaching staff.”
Michael Dodds, the academy manager at Birmingham, picked Bellingham’s obsession with not being in a comfort zone as a stand-out trait. “He always wanted better sessions, more feedback, greater challenges. Nothing was enough, because there needed to constantly be a test for him.”
An England scout that monitored Bellingham regularly from the age of 13-16 would get bored by using the same terminology in his reports: “unbelievably mature”; “not satisfied with just winning”; “playing a different sport to everyone else on the pitch”.
Another recently told a Premier League sporting director: “It doesn’t matter what you’re quoted for Bellingham, you pay it because he will work hard to make you feel it’s a bargain.”
At international level, he is considered the future of England’s midfield and the player their long-term vision will be built around.
“He’s got humility, good manners, confidence and a lovely way about him,” Gareth Southgate recently stated. England’s manager didn’t feel the need to talk up Bellingham’s ability as it already screams superstar.
Last July, there was sniggering when Birmingham retired Bellingham’s No 22 shirt as a tribute to what he had given the club and what they believed he could become.
They’re having the last laugh as the world’s biggest clubs trip over themselves to sign him. The return of the Champions League provides another window into the prodigy they could have, but the truth is that none of football’s powerhouses have been able to take their eyes off Bellingham for years.