When Jude Bellingham was a kid, he says he would stay up past bedtime to watch the clásico. Back then he didn’t want to miss a minute; now no one else wants him to either. There is a reason only one Real Madrid player has played more of them this season and when he pulled up towards the end of their midweek visit to Braga, four days before travelling to Barcelona, one front page declared a “Bellingham scare”. He says it was just a “tweak” and that he is ready for the biggest game of them all on Saturday afternoon.
Asked during an interview with Spanish state TV whether he was nervous about the game, Bellingham replied: “No, not really, I’ve obviously played a lot of high-pressure games, [although] maybe not one of this magnitude. I’m more excited than anything. I’m so looking forward to the atmosphere. Whatever else, it will be really fun.
“Back when I was a kid in England we still had the coverage of the clásicos and Spanish football. I definitely loved the games as a kid and I always tuned in, no matter how late it was, even when my mum was telling me to get to bed. I’d always stay up until I got the last minute of every clásico. I remember celebrations; Ronaldo’s ‘calma’ [calm down gesture] at the Camp Nou, stuff like that. It sticks in your mind: the iconic moments, the good, the bad, sometimes the ugly side of it as well. There have been so many classic games, so many magic moments, it’s a pleasure to be able to play it.
“Where else would you rather be as a football player? You can imagine what it means. It’s not hard to understand: I watched clásicos growing up and you see the reaction from the fans inside the stadium and TV. You can tell how much it means to them.
“We understand that responsibility; the point is to go out there and make our fans proud. I had a little tweak in the last game, just a bit of fatigue – I have played a lot of games already – but it’s just about making sure I’m in the best possible condition. I’m feeling good.”
Jude Bellingham throws himself into a tackle against Braga. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images
Looking good too. “Born to play for Real Madrid,” according to his teammate Vinícius Júnior, Bellingham has scored eight times in nine league games and in all three Champions League appearances. It is not chance that he is the most-fouled player in the Spanish league. He has been compared to Raúl, Zinedine Zidane, Alfredo Di Stéfano and even Diego Maradona after scoring a wonderful goal at Napoli, although he did describe that as “a bit much”.
“It’s hard to talk about yourself in that way,” Bellingham said. “I’ve had a lot of help from all the staff and my teammates. They’ve made it quite easy for me. On the pitch I feel really free because of the role I’m playing with the coach. It’s really fun and I’m enjoying it and when I’m enjoying my football I always think I play at my best, so long may it continue.”
Carlo Ancelotti said that in all his time in football he had never seen a player so young make an impact so great. The Bernabéu has taken to serenading Bellingham with Hey Jude. His goalscoring celebration has become celebrated already, not least because it has been seen so often.
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“That’s been quite surprising,” Bellingham, who was 20 in June, said. “I think it’s an element of my game that’s improved. But for me the most important thing is that I affect the game all over the pitch. Obviously I’ve been really clinical in front of goal and I’ve shown quality in and around the box to make goals and score goals, but I think my all-round game has been quite good as well so I’m very happy with that.
“I love the Beatles, there are so many good songs, there’s one in particular that I like, I’m sure you can imagine … I get goosebumps just thinking about how it makes me feel on the pitch after I’ve scored a goal or [done] a tackle or a piece of skill, and I start to hear it slowly and then louder and louder. It’s something that I’m really proud of. I’m so grateful to the fans for how they’ve treated me coming into the club. So far it’s been a good start but I’ll look to continue to repay them for how they’ve welcomed me.”