Harry Kane v Jude Bellingham: English generations collide in Champions League semi-final

Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane have starred on the continent (Getty Images)
Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane have starred on the continent (Getty Images)

As Harry Kane already knows, Jude Bellingham isn’t shy about telling people what he thinks. That isn’t necessarily to berate them, either. The 20-year-old has taken to paternalistically encouraging teammates as if he is a senior professional... like, for example, Harry Kane. In most cases, this would infuriate more established players. In Bellingham’s case, it is just part of the package. He ‘walks the walk’, as teammates put it. Kane has even recognised this with England, where his own approach is quieter and more about leadership by example.

The different paths now converge at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday and then the Bernabeu next Wednesday, to see which of England’s two most influential players will get to play at Wembley for the club season’s crowning game. The fact both are seen as potentially making Euro 2024 their tournament, given their own connections with Germany, only offers another layer. This is the highest goalscorer in England’s history, up against the national team’s future, both playing for the present.

And all, of course, for two clubs that are Europe’s established elite. It's Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in a Champions League semi-final with Kane and Bellingham the stars. It’s all the more timely given the Premier League doesn’t have a semi-finalist for the first time in four years. While the meeting of Bellingham and Kane on such a stage would usually provoke discussion about the English game as a whole, what is more interesting are their differences. There is a generational gap here, a clear illustration of evolution.

Their careers do admittedly have superficial similarities.

Both had formative seasons in the Championship. Both went to Germany for the better of their career. Both now find themselves in a Champions League semi-final playing for major foreign clubs, where they have become the attacking forces around which a huge semi-final will pivot.

That’s about where it ends, though.

Jude Bellingham, left, and Harry Kane have excelled this season after high-profile moves (John Walton/PA) (PA Wire)
Jude Bellingham, left, and Harry Kane have excelled this season after high-profile moves (John Walton/PA) (PA Wire)

Bellingham almost represents the inevitable consequence of England’s concerted overhaul of talent production. After a generation of producing technically excellent players, the country is now benefitting from a natural talent who has grown up in this more mature football environment, marrying his own ability with utter assurance. That's what happens when huge football cultures do this. It is a numbers game in that sense, and no one typifies that better than an attacker who has already scored 21 goals this season. It’s why many see a logic in Bellingham potentially offering the missing element in Gareth Southgate’s team.

Kane isn’t really a product of that. He emerged before England began to start producing this generation of players, and that was largely down to his own hard work. There is almost a Messi-Ronaldo dynamic to this duopoly, not that anyone would want to stretch that comparison any further. One is a natural talent. The other is self-made. Kane is of course the last person who would take that as a criticism, given he has spoken about modelling his assiduous approach on the relentlessness of figures like Ronaldo and Tom Brady. That’s why he left Tottenham Hotspur, after all. He realised he had to take these steps if he really wanted to be a ‘winner’.

It’s also why he went on several loan moves in the lower leagues at the start of his career. The purpose of spells at Leyton Orient, Millwall and Norwich City was to find himself, to develop his game. Kane would carefully apply every single lesson he learnt to hone his play, right down to Clive Allen telling him he should take shots early.

Bellingham, by contrast, didn’t go to Birmingham City to find himself. He’d already been ‘discovered’ by all of Europe. Everyone wanted him. Bellingham just went there as he knew, at a mere 16 years of age, he would be guaranteed regular football. From there, every career move has been meticulously planned out. He went to Borussia Dortmund as he knew it was the best major league club for a teenager to develop. He went to Real Madrid, well, because he was ready.

Jude Bellingham shone playing for Borussia Dortmund (AP)
Jude Bellingham shone playing for Borussia Dortmund (AP)

There was a romance to that, since Bellingham loved Spanish football growing up and this is after all the biggest club in the world. It's an admirably internationalist outlook.

There is also a cold career logic. After playing so much football as a teenager, Bellingham will now enjoy his early twenties in a league that isn’t as intensive or as demanding as the Premier League.

Kane just didn’t look at it in that way. It wasn’t planned. That could be witnessed in his initial attempt to leave Tottenham Hotspur in 2021. They couldn’t make it happen, because there hadn’t been enough preparation. Kane was beholden to that six-year contract he signed in 2018. There was an element of romance about that too, of course. Kane would have preferred to win major trophies at Spurs, but not even his goals could overcome the financial reality of the game.

He eventually had to make a tough decision. It certainly wasn’t planned in the way Bellingham’s was.

Kane knew he had to eventually give himself the best chance of maximising his ability by winning trophies. It is why, for all the jokes and memes, there is a poignancy to how this Bundesliga season has gone for him personally. It isn’t Kane’s fault, given he’s done his part of scoring the goals, but his signing coinciding with Bayern’s failure to win a title for the first time since 2012 has seen him branded a “loser”.

It is why this Champions League assumes even greater importance. It’s hardly Kane’s last chance but the mere passage of time increases the pressure of making this count.

Harry Kane has been racking up goals for Bayern Munich (Getty Images)
Harry Kane has been racking up goals for Bayern Munich (Getty Images)

That’s not the case for Bellingham. This season may just be the first of many. Who would bet against him winning a series of medals? That career-planning, and talent, has given him the best possible opportunity. Bellingham has left nothing to chance.

Those who work around the England squad say it also points to a generational difference in psychology, that may well shape the future of the national team.

Kane hopes. Bellingham expects.

One forced his way. The other had the way laid out.

It is possible that the two complement each other at Euro 2024 to complete Southgate’s side.

Over the next week, they’re competing, their different paths bringing them to the same pitches in pursuit of that one great trophy.

Their very roles ensure they will have a significant say in where it goes. Kane is Bayern’s goalscorer that also makes them move. Bellingham is a force that moves who has become a goalscorer.

Their presence may play into this being a more stand-offish game. Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid are a much more constrained and counter-attacking team. Thomas Tuchel can often be like that in Europe, as Arsenal found.

This might be a more classic tactical Champions League, where both sides wait for prime opportunities. They also have two players better than anyone at taking those chances, and they happen to represent the modern evolution of English footballers.