It may be of scant consolation in the Ruhr Valley but Borussia Dortmund’s status as the footballing world’s preeminent feeder club seems cemented. A few days before Erling Haaland, their 2022 flagship sale, played in a Champions League final, there was confirmation that Jude Bellingham, his 2023 counterpart, is going to serial Champions League winners Real Madrid.
He was perhaps overshadowed by the Miami-bound Lionel Messi but it probably still represents the summer’s most momentous transfer. There have been times over the last two seasons when Real have seemed to be mounting a lone campaign to prevent the Premier League from dominating Europe; they eliminated three English opponents last season and two this before the emphatic 4-0 defeat to Manchester City. It doesn’t quite reverse the scoreline, but as City were also suitors for Bellingham, Real gained revenge of sorts. Perhaps they are never more potent in the transfer market than when hammered on the pitch: in 2009, after being thrashed 4-0 by Liverpool, they went out and bought Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso and Kaka. Fourteen years and five Champions Leagues later, Benzema is finally leaving.
That Bellingham is still a teenager, if only for a few weeks, opens up the prospect of a sequel, a continuum of success. Maybe a generational talent will help swing the balance of power back to where it has often resided, in the Bernabeu. It also shows that his is a career unlike any other English player: even if the Premier League eventually does beckon, it will only be after playing in the Championship, the Bundesliga and La Liga. There is an English trait towards insularity, but Bellingham feels increasingly cosmopolitan.
And Real still seem the ultimate destination club. In a world of various rivalries – England versus mainland Europe, new money against old – the siren call of Spain’s two superpowers remains strong. Being Real – or Barcelona – comes with certain advantages; they have long exerted a gravitational pull for Spanish, Portuguese and South American footballers but Bellingham is proof it still extends beyond them. It also confers an economic advantage. If Barcelona’s current financial strategy is to get everything and everyone on the cheap, Real may have got Bellingham for a relative bargain.
Sizeable as an initial fee of £86 million is, it is less than many anticipated. When Liverpool bowed out of the race for him, the sense was that Bellingham could go for £130 million; even £86 million would have been beyond Liverpool’s parameters, as some other clubs had already concluded, while Manchester United’s need for a striker meant he could not be their top priority. It may have only left a market of two: Real and City. In his own way, Bellingham is the anti-Haaland. Whereas there was a clear vacancy for a centre-forward in Manchester, there is congestion in the queue for midfield spots in Madrid.
Carlo Ancelotti might be the greatest diplomat of his age. He might also need to be, with the next generation of Bellingham, Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni and Federico Valverde, while there is also the ancien regime of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to placate. In one respect, it may have been better for Real had Bellingham joined in 2024 when one or both of Modric and Kroos could leave. In the meantime, even the compromises of fielding Camavinga at left-back and Valverde on the right wing may not shield the reality each has a compelling case to start in midfield in the major matches. Six into three does not go.
Nevertheless, Real still look masters of succession planning. It is a way in which they have reinvented themselves. Vinicius Junior is proof they are now signing Galacticos before they become Galacticos and, for all his talent, Bellingham has not yet gravitated to the level of fame players such as Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham had when Real bought them.
Jude Bellingham will strengthen Real Madrid in a move worth an initial £86 million (Getty Images)
But it is notable that Bellingham joins as perhaps the last of the old-school Galacticos goes: Eden Hazard was the trophy signing, the €100 million man who left on a free transfer. Real got four goals in La Liga from Hazard over four seasons and if injuries rendered him and them luckless, Bellingham offers the prospect of more longevity and resale value as well as a greater impact. Hazard apart, Real have been smart buyers in recent years, with a judicious mix of long-term investments, astute free transfers and players acquired for less than their actual value. They have debunked their own dishonest rationale for trying to found the Super League by handling transition within the existing parameters of their budget, and perhaps emerging stronger at the end of it.
Now Real are simultaneously delaying the future with Kroos and Modric, being forced into it by Benzema’s departure and preparing almost perfectly for it. They seem to have the midfield for the 2020s. If, in due course, Bellingham is joined at the Bernabeu by either Haaland or Kylian Mbappe, they may have the forward for the decade, too.