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31 may 2024

Champions League Dream: The Birmingham Boy, Bellingham

Champions League Dream: The Birmingham Boy, Bellingham

Champions League Dream: The Birmingham Boy, Bellingham

Jude Bellingham, at just 20 years old, has been named LaLiga's player of the year after scoring 19 goals and propelling Real Madrid to the league title in his debut season with the club. On Saturday, he will play in the Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley Stadium, before joining the England squad for this summer's European Championships.

Bellingham's rise has been meteoric, achieving numerous career milestones in a matter of months. Even with his quiet self-confidence and steely ambition, he probably couldn't have anticipated reaching these heights so quickly.

"Yeah, I've got to be honest, probably, yeah," he admitted with a smile, speaking to a small group of journalists at Madrid's training ground on Monday, just days before the biggest match of his career. "I always thought I could reach this level. This was always the level I wanted to play at. I probably never realized it would happen so quickly."

This is Bellingham's first Champions League final. His coach, Carlo Ancelotti, is a seasoned veteran with nine finals under his belt—three as a player and six as a coach over a span of 40 years. Ancelotti understands the significance of savoring the buildup to such a game. "It's a week to enjoy," Ancelotti remarked on Monday. "Until the day of the final, we'll enjoy the moment ... Then, the worry arrives. The fear, the cold sweat arrives on Saturday afternoon, that's normal."

Bellingham shares the excitement. "I'm really excited," he said. "It's a game I've been dreaming of since I started playing football. I understand the opportunity, I understand not many people get to play in games like this, and I don't want to waste a second. I want to take in the whole week. I want to take in the experience of the game, and try to enjoy it. ... It would be stupid now to get here and want to hide away from the occasion."

The final's significance is heightened by the fact that Real Madrid will face Dortmund, the club that believed in Bellingham back in 2020, signing him from Birmingham City as a 17-year-old and helping him develop before his move to Madrid last summer.

"It's definitely special," Bellingham acknowledged. "But the preparation has to be the same as for every game. I know what makes me feel good going into a game, I've had experience of playing with some amazing pros, and I've always stolen little things from them. It's important to just be me going into the game, and try not to worry too much about the emotional side."

In just one year at Madrid, Bellingham has transitioned from an outstanding teenage prospect to a global superstar, thanks to a record-breaking start to the season that saw him score 13 goals in 13 games. Even before winning the LaLiga title, he had already collected several individual awards, including the 2024 Kopa Trophy for the best under-21 player, Tuttosport's 2024 Golden Boy award, and the Laureus World Breakthrough Award, with talk of being a contender for the 2024 Ballon d'Or.

This transformation began with a tactical shift, as Ancelotti boldly deployed Bellingham in a more advanced role to offset the absence of a world-class center-forward following Karim Benzema's departure.

"It was from the first day," Bellingham said on Monday. "He [Ancelotti] said I was going to be playing a little bit higher. It's not something I'd done consistently before, but I was really excited by the prospect: being close to goal, being a bit more free in that top third. In the end it was a decent decision. He [Ancelotti] knows what he's doing!"

Bellingham's performance in the second half of the season has been more subdued. A shoulder injury—dislocated in November and managed with strapping since—and an ankle problem sustained in February have impacted his form. Ancelotti adjusted Bellingham's role, positioning him deeper and to the left, which required more defensive work. Consequently, Bellingham's goal-scoring rate has decreased to that of a more typical midfielder, with six goals in 12 LaLiga games in 2024.

In the Champions League, Bellingham scored four goals in his first four group games against Union Berlin, Braga, and Napoli. However, he hasn't scored in the six subsequent matches, including the quarterfinals and semifinals against Manchester City and Bayern Munich. In those knockout stage games, his expected goals (xG) totaled just 0.12 from three shots over 374 minutes.

His most significant contribution during the knockout stages came in the home leg against RB Leipzig in the round of 16, when he carried the ball half the length of the pitch before assisting Vinicius Junior, showcasing his strengths in a deeper role.

Against City and Bayern, Bellingham's performances were more subdued, mirroring the team's struggles. In the 3-3 draw with Manchester City on April 9, he had 48 touches, fewer than any City player except Erling Haaland. In the 2-2 draw at Bayern Munich on April 30, he was substituted after 75 minutes, with Luka Modric replacing him as the team trailed 2-1.

Ancelotti has praised Bellingham, saying in April, "the goals have dropped off a bit, but the performance hasn't." The team has continued to win, securing LaLiga with four games to spare. In London, they have the chance to achieve a league and Champions League double, Madrid's second in three years. Before the match, Bellingham will likely be seen on the Wembley pitch, walking alone and visualizing key moments in the game, a ritual he has followed all season.

"It's a belief that my family's always given me," Bellingham said on Monday. "Teammates I've had, staff members I've had from the [Birmingham] academy. I've always thought to dream as big as possible. It's a feeling I've always had growing up. I've worked hard, but there's a lot of luck involved as well. I don't shy away from saying how fortunate I've been. Now I'm here, I want to enjoy every moment."