Jude Bellingham has balls like Zinedine Zidane and might claim Ballon d’Or to match

Ryan Baldi
Jude Bellingham and Zinedine Zidane
Jude Bellingham and Zinedine Zidane

It is a sign of Jude Bellingham’s very modern brand of superstardom that he is one of the athletes most commonly captured in gif form. Most of the brief clips starring the Real Madrid midfielder depict his already-iconic goal celebration – arms spread wide, basking in the adulation of the Bernabeu.

Madrid’s 3-2 victory over Barcelona on Sunday – in which the England midfielder scored a stoppage-time winner – birthed another Bellingham gif, and one that speaks louder to the root of his brilliance than any other.

You’ve probably seen it by now. Even for a gif, it’s short. You have to let it loop a couple of times to be sure of what you’ve seen. And what you see is Bellingham, in the immaculate white of the 14-time European champions, gesturing towards his, ahem, nether regions, as though to suggest he possesses abnormal testicular vastness.

It’s a crude gesture, one of few acts the 20-year-old has performed over the last four years that betrays his youth. But yeah, he’s not wrong.

The 91st-minute strike that sunk Barcelona and sent Madrid 11 points clear at the top of La Liga was Bellingham’s 21st goal of the season and his 17th in the league. It’s an absurd return on multiple levels.

Absurd for the fact he is ostensibly a midfielder, and one who most recently hasn’t been playing in an especially advanced role. Ridiculous because of his age and the size of the club he not only represents but has often willingly carried and which he has served as a kind of spiritual talisman, a guardian of a winningest of all winning cultures. Outrageous because he is the second-highest scorer in La Liga – again: as a midfielder; as a 20-year-old; a comparative novice.

Bellingham is a wonderful footballer with an ever-growing skillset. His desire to master all aspects of a midfielder’s role is reflected in his choice of shirt number previously with Birmingham City and Borussia Dortmund. He wanted to exhibit the poise and discipline of a holding midfielder – a No.4 traditionally in English football, rather than a No.6 as the position has come to be known – the energy and thrust of a box-to-box No.8 and the creativity and flair of a No.10.

“He idolised the likes of Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney,” his former youth coach Mike Dodds once explained. “One of my favourite players was Paul Gascoigne. Gazza could do everything. He could control the ball from deeper areas. He could score. He could create in higher areas. I used to talk to him a lot about Paul Gascoigne. Those three players were the players who we talked about when we reviewed his programme.

“We always reviewed around, ‘Were you a 22 today? Did you defend? Did you run around? Were you a box-to-box eight? Were you a 10?’ He held on to that, hence the reason why now he wears the number 22 shirt.”

He doesn’t wear the No.22 at the Bernabeu. Instead, the England star was handed the No.5 jersey. The shirt would weigh heavy for many because it used to belong to Zinedine Zidane and the only other midfielders to have worn it since the Frenchman’s retirement in 2006 were Fernando Gago and Nuri Sahin, talented youngsters who ultimately left little to no impression at the historic Spanish club.

But a trait Bellingham shares with the three-time FIFA World Player of the Year has seen him thrive under the pressure of playing for Real Madrid and follow in the footsteps of an icon.

Bellingham is not always Madrid’s best player on a given night. Against Barca at the weekend, that was Lucas Vazquez. In the Champions League this season it has often been Vinicius Jr or even Rodrygo. Luka Modric can still steal the show in cameos, too.

Zidane was the same. He’s remembered as a dominant controller of games, a player whose sheer force of deftness saw him bend matches to his will on a weekly basis. But Zidane was a player of moments. He would have stretches of passivity that could span several weeks at a time. When it mattered, though, more often than not, he delivered. And in style.

Bellingham is technically very different to Zidane. While far from deficient in these areas, he lacks the Frenchman’s otherworldly touch, close control, vision and two-footedness. Bellingham is better defensively than Zidane, as well as being a superior athlete and already a far superior scorer.

What Zidane and Bellingham share – beyond a shirt number – is a knack for meeting the moment.

Bellingham did it in October at Montjuic, at the old hilltop Olympic stadium Barcelona are borrowing while the Camp Nou is renovated. That time he scored both goals in a 2-1 win, the first a 25-yard rocket to equalise in the 68th minute, the second a tap-in from close range that showcased the scorer’s instincts that have helped send his debut season in Spain to celestial heights.

His last-gasp winner in the return fixture at the Bernabeu fit into the latter category. Racing to join a breakaway, he once again met a moment of the highest stakes with impeccable timing, side-footing a first-time finish from six yards.

It speaks to Bellingham’s remarkable feats of scoring that, prior to the Clasico, the stretch of three league games in which he hadn’t scored was considered a worrying drought. And it is unequivocal evidence of his Zizou-esque knack for delivering when it matters most that the strike that snapped his scoreless streak was the eighth time this season that he has scored in a game that Madrid went on to win by a one-goal margin.

Bellingham’s greatest asset – and the main reason why, at 20, he is the most important player at the world’s biggest club – is how his pulse slows as the stakes rise. His blood cools the more eyes are watching. Colossal cojones.

READ: Jude Bellingham is favourite for Ballon d’Or