As Jude Bellingham was ushered around the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris on Monday evening, he was already being told by so many there that he’d be back for the Ballon d’Or itself soon. That just might be as soon as next season, thanks to what he himself is saying with his feet right now.
The 20-year-old, who was in Paris to collect the Kopa Trophy, given to the best-performing player worldwide under the age of 21, has already changed the discussion about his club, his career and even the whole game after a series of sensational performances.
It is not just that this is fast becoming “Bellingham’s Real Madrid”, as a Cristiano Ronaldo-style obsession with him around the Bernabeu grows. It is that the long-anticipated era of Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe – perhaps properly opened by what was probably Leo Messi’s last Ballon d’Or – may already be the era of Haaland, Mbappe and Bellingham.
He’s been so good that even his greatest admirers within the Bernabeu power structure have been taken aback by his impact. With Bellingham having scored 13 goals in 13 games, not even any of the galacticos or either Ronaldo had this kind of start.
Madrid knew he would be excellent straight away, but the thinking was still largely about signing a player for the next decade. Instead, Bellingham’s future is now. The Bernabeu hierarchy are already talking about a player that is clearly on that level – the true Real Madrid level.
A significant part of it, beyond his ability and his mentality, was his readiness for the stage. Sometimes that just happens and it fits for a player, but it is still incredible given Bellingham's age and the fact that this is the most demanding stage of all. As everyone from Ronaldo to David Beckham would attest, there's really nothing like Madrid.
There is also a new romance to that, even if we are talking about the grandest traditional power in football history.
As someone who grew up absorbing the lore of the game, Bellingham just relished the chance to be one of Madrid’s great stars. He was acutely aware that means more than virtually anywhere else in the world. It’s why he made up his mind to go to the Bernabeu as early as last December – as reported by The Independent at the time – but probably as soon as Madrid came in.
The Bernabeu negotiation team, led by chief scout Juni Calafat, pitched the club as “the best place for young talent in Europe”. They pointed to the development of his current teammates Vinicius Jr, Aurelien Tchouameni, Eduardo Camavinga and Federico Valverde.
They didn’t need to. Bellingham was already thinking about right now. He believes he can deliver the biggest trophies this season, and demands such ambition of teammates. He tells them they're already the best. It was one other reason he rejected a bigger financial offer from Manchester City, and turned down Liverpool.
That has played into how he has superseded expectations in other ways. When Madrid were pursuing the former Borussia Dortmund midfielder, the calculation was that he would be Luka Modric’s long-term successor.
Bellingham has instead proven to be Karim Benzema’s immediate successor. Far from a midfielder, he has played much closer to the French legend’s previous position and essentially replaced his goal output. Such a return has already put Bellingham within one goal of his best tally at Dortmund, which was 14 last season.
That fact pushes back some of the caveats that can admittedly be made about the 20-year-old’s form.
This is maybe the weakest Spanish league since the 1970s, the competition's necessary financial reorganisation preventing the arrival of the stars that have defined it previously. Within that, and against the financial power of state-owned clubs, Madrid also reorganised themselves. There was a shift in philosophy towards youth. Going against their entire history, but going with the prevailing economic trends of the game, president Florentino Perez realised the need to bring in the game’s next best stars rather than the current Ballon d’Or winners. It was quite an inversion from even a decade ago, and the many unfavourable contrasts with Pep Guardiola's Barcelona.
Madrid and especially Calafat have done a superb job, almost creating the world’s next great team by stealth. They were still a club, and a league, waiting for a true star, though. They had been waiting for Mbappe.
But that’s Mbappe. That’s the level. That’s what Bellingham has risen to. That’s what two game-changing, match-winning goals in a Clasico symbolises, especially at this age.
It might be a more-forgiving Liga but Bellingham himself is a highly demanding player. Gareth Southgate has spoken of how “he has been a catalyst, the way he carries himself”. Bellingham asks more of teammates, albeit in an encouraging way. He already looks and sounds like a leader.
No one around the England camp will yet say this publicly for fear of having the perils of knockout football throw it back in their faces, but there is a feeling he is exactly the sort of personality the national team have been waiting for. Bellingham is a truly modern player, unencumbered by the weight of the past. He studies it, yes, but only to set ambitions.
There is a belief that he can be the player to at last bring England over the line. Madrid feel the same. So does pretty much everyone in football.
If this all sounds like setting his career path just as it’s started, it only fits in with how Bellingham thinks and speaks. No doubt is discernible. Everyone who has spoken to him has noted his striking assertiveness. It even extends to his learning of Spanish, as he isn’t afraid to make mistakes.
This has only further endeared him to a Madrid dressing room that already loves him. That can be seen in the response to his goals, how even teammates like Vinicius Jr have taken on the “Hey Jude” theme.
This is already becoming Bellingham's Madrid. It may soon be his era, too.