Almost everyone in the stadium is under Jude Bellingham’s command.
On the pitch, England’s players are looking to Bellingham for inspiration, feeding him the ball whenever they can. Meanwhile Italy’s players are concentrating a sizeable proportion of their defensive efforts on stopping Bellingham, surrounding him with two, three or four players at a time.
And off the pitch, Wembley is quiet. Italy are winning, England are playing like puddings.
Bellingham senses the mood needs lifting and, after England win a corner, he turns to the stands and flails his arms around. They respond with the loudest roar of the evening.
Thirty seconds later, the 20-year-old barges into the penalty area uninvited and wins a penalty. England are level, almost from nowhere. Before the match resumes, it is Bellingham cajoling his team-mates and telling them to keep going.
To be one of the world’s best players is one thing, to be an inspiration leader is another. Bellingham is both.
With his magnificent performance here, dragging England into the lead either side of half-time with moments of aggressive ingenuity, but also with his ring-mastering of the audience, it felt like this was the night Bellingham’s relationship with his home public was forged.
— Channel 4 Sport (@C4Sport) October 17, 2023
This was only his fifth Wembley start, owing to many of Bellingham’s 27 caps coming away from home, or in tournaments, or at grounds like Molineux or the Riverside when England have gone on the road.
He spoke to Wembley, with his feet, with his gestures, with his rabble-rousing — and in turn they worshipped him, singing his name, shouting “Juuuude”, marvelling at his flicked passes, his sliding tackles, his dominance of the game.
Bellingham embodies greatness in ways we have seen before from England players — the flicks, lobs and artistry of a Paul Gascoigne, the all-action, every blade of grass of a Steven Gerrard and the match-winning ability of well, a Harry Kane — but to combine and congeal all these traits and facets into one superhuman footballer who can conquer the universe is something we have not witnessed since Wayne Rooney burst onto the scene 20 years ago.
Bellingham has added dimensions that Rooney lacked though, namely the front-of-centre leadership of a Tony Adams. He appears to be level-headed and is incredibly articulate.
Rooney’s fearlessness and eye-popping ability was treasured by England fans in the early part of his career but by the end he was being booed, not helped by a fallow few years for the team but the bond between him and supporters never felt like one of universal love, despite his goal record. There was the snapping back at the boos in South Africa in 2010 and the filtering of Rooney from a raw, gifted maverick to a player with smoother edges and orthodoxy. But maybe playing for Manchester United, the team that so many football supporters in England love to hate, did not help.
If Bellingham continues to ply his trade abroad (and he said on Tuesday night he wants to play for Real Madrid “for the next 10 to 15 years of my life”) you wonder what bearing it will have on his relationship with England.
There has not really been a comparable example in terms of leading England players, in recent history or beyond.
In the opposite direction to Bellingham went Cesc Fabregas, who left Barcelona for Arsenal aged 16 and spent so much of his career in England that he once said he sometimes feels more English than Spanish. While English football was enchanted by Fabregas’ genius in those early years, was he as appreciated in Spain?
Fabregas felt he had to return to Barcelona partly to force his way into the Spain side. “You do wonder if it helps (to be in Spain)” he said of his frustration with the national team.
It took Lionel Messi the majority of his career and a World Cup triumph to make Argentina fall in love with him. When things were not going as planned for the national team, Messi was depicted as a “foreigner” or the “Catalan Argentine”.
For an England player playing abroad for many years at the start of his career you have to go back to Owen Hargreaves. Again, though, that was different; Hargreaves had never lived in England by the time he became a regular in the early 2000s, having been brought up in Canada before moving to Germany. Hargreaves, despite being the England squad’s most decorated medal winner at the time owing to his success with Bayern Munich, was booed by England fans at the 2006 World Cup.
“The problem I’ve got is that the English public don’t know me,” Hargreaves said. “They don’t see me.” Plus there was the Canadian accent.
Bellingham speaks with a fine Black Country twang, no problems there, but there will come a time when things are not going so well, for club or country. So is there a scenario a few years down the line when Bellingham is saying: “The English public don’t know me”?
— Jude Bellingham (@BellinghamJude) October 17, 2023
Playing abroad, he will be protected from the tribalism that comes with playing for a big English club — and when he is playing poorly for Real Madrid, no one here will particularly notice or care. He will be spared tabloid scrutiny.
But on the flip side there is an element of English football watchers not being able to bank a load of live Bellingham memories, in stadiums or on television. Some people will watch him play for Real Madrid, sure, but you cannot imagine Viaplay’s viewing figures are even comparable with a Championship match on Sky Sports, let alone a Super Sunday clash between Liverpool and Manchester United, for example.
There is a complete obsession with Bellingham in Madrid — like the one we saw here for Erling Haaland a year ago — and it is spreading across Europe. During Italy’s pre-match media build-up several of their players were asked about Bellingham, in the manner of him being outstanding player in European football at the moment. Which he probably is.
All of which begs the question, if Bellingham stays in Spain as he states his intention to, will the English public ever truly understand or appreciate how good he is? Or will a young man who is the best footballer for the biggest club in the world, a genuine world star, be an invisible genius here?
Nights like Tuesday will help, but memorable Wembley occasions do not come around often. Therefore it will most likely be at major tournaments, unless he moves to the Premier League, at which Bellingham’s English reputation and, ultimately, his legacy, will be cemented one way or the other.
For now, things could not be going any better. “He has been a catalyst,” Southgate said after Bellingham helped secure England’s spot at next summer’s Euros.
“The way he carries himself and plays on the field shows that. He has had that since he walked through the door. Plus the power in his play gives us something in tight situations and he can wriggle out of things. That belief and willingness to engage with the crowd are rare traits in someone so young.
“His mentality is incredible for his age, to have such a big impact and maturity and humility. We are very lucky to have him.”
(Photo: Alex Pantling – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)