The future is now: Jude Bellingham is making the World Cup look easy

There was a moment during the build-up to England’s second goal that you stopped and realised a 19-year-old from Stourbridge was already becoming one of the most feared midfielders in world football. Jude Bellingham had already beaten Pathé Ciss to a bouncing ball on the edge of his own box, turning a 50-50 challenge into a landslide victory, winning the ball with a downward header that cared not for the boot that might meet it. There was then the way he shrugged off Youssouf Sabaly, who engaged but then suddenly recoiled as if he had suffered a mild electric shock.

The moment in question, though, the moment that truly illustrated Bellingham’s command of this contest as the first half drew to a close, came immediately after that, when both Nampalys Mendy and Abdou Diallo were sucked into his orbit. Two-thirds of Senegal’s defence turned to face the brute force heading their way, paying no heed to either Phil Foden or Harry Kane’s runs in behind. Bellingham demanded their attention and by grabbing it, he as good as put England two up.

By that point, he had already set up the first. That was not all Bellingham like the second – there was Foden’s flicked backheel by the far touchline, then Kane’s threaded pass through the lines – but the intelligence of Bellingham’s movement and the authority of run into the inside-left channel was what really put Senegal’s defence on the back foot. A nonchalant square pass for Jordan Henderson appeared far simpler to play than it actually was, but that should be no surprise: in almost every game, Bellingham is making playing at your first World Cup look easy.

Bellingham lit up the win over Senegal (The FA via Getty Images)
Bellingham lit up the win over Senegal (The FA via Getty Images)

And even before that, when this last-16 tie was still goalless and a comfortable 3-0 victory looked like distant prospect, when Senegal were successfully stifling England’s build-up and blocking off the passing lanes that feed the midfield, Bellingham was searching and scouring for the ball, first to nick and steal it off a Senegalese player’s feet. It was enough to evoke that very English response to an outstanding performance of a young player: to get totally and utterly carried away.

Can you retire a shirt number at international level? Can you retire one while the player is still playing for you? Is that any more ridiculous than retiring it for a 17-year-old? Birmingham City’s decision to withdraw the No 22 from their squad lists when Bellingham joined Borussia Dortmund two years ago was widely ridiculed at the time but, if former chief executive Xuandong Ren was not exactly known for his astuteness or foresight, it looks like a far more reasonable decision now.

We’re being facetious, of course. Nobody should be getting ahead of themselves, not least because there is hopefully so much more to come. It is becoming difficult to find new ways of describing just how young Bellingham still is. Once you have recycled through the fact that he is younger than many PlayStation 2 releases and still not old enough to get his heavy goods vehicle licence, you start to run out of comparisons. The upshot, though, is that all being well, there is a decade or more to come of one of the best midfielders in Europe playing for England. In other words, the future is now.

Bellingham is making things look easy at his first World Cup (AFP via Getty Images)
Bellingham is making things look easy at his first World Cup (AFP via Getty Images)

Or more precisely, it is coming this Saturday. While plenty of the focus will be on how England cope with Kylian Mbappé in the quarter-final against France, there is also the prospect of a battle between Bellingham and the other outstanding young midfield talent on the continent.

Aurelien Tchouameni has already got his big move at club level. Bellingham is sure to follow this summer. The biggest game of both their careers so far will provide a precursor to a battle we are likely to see several more times over the years to come, perhaps at more major international tournaments to come. There is much to look forward to.

But for now, a bit like Mendy and Diallo, it is hard to do anything but stop, stare and admire the present. Bellingham has arrived at his first World Cup and immediately looked every bit the elite-level midfielder he is expected – perhaps destined – to become.