Jude Bellingham was only 14 when England began their last World Cup campaign but he was already planning for the future. “Even watching that I was only ever thinking: ‘How can I get into this team?’” the midfielder said last week.
Four-and-a-half years on and the 19‑year‑old scored his first senior international goal on the biggest stage as Gareth Southgate’s side kicked off their 2022 World Cup campaign in style. The 6-2 thumping of Iran in which the 21-year-old Bukayo Saka scored two brilliant goals showed that England’s emerging generation are determined to do things their own way.
“I feel the support and love from the fans, the coaching staff and my teammates,” Saka said after – like his fellow goalscorer Marcus Rashford, who came on as a substitute – he banished the demons of missing a penalty in the Euro 2020 final on his previous appearance at a major tournament. “That is all I need.”
Bellingham’s opener, which made him the second teenager to score for England at a World Cup after Michael Owen’s heroics as an 18‑year‑old in 1998, has been long in the making. Ever since he first played for Birmingham’s under‑18s just as England were heading to Russia in 2018, the son of a prolific non-league striker, Mark – who also served as a sergeant for West Midlands Police – has been tipped for stardom.
After beating Trevor Francis’s longstanding record as Birmingham’s youngest player by 101 days, Bellingham opted to remain in the Championship for another season despite interest from most of Europe’s top clubs. “It’s a lot of success for the club and the academy,” said former manager Pep Clotet after his protege scored the winning goal against Charlton in September 2019. “For the fans to see a young player coming through – that is something you can never buy in football.”
Unlike Saka, Mason Mount, Declan Rice or any of the other players in Southgate’s squad who have blossomed after being nurtured in the thriving English academy system, Bellingham has left his homeland. He joined Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2020, following in the footsteps of Jadon Sancho, who had turned down a contract with Manchester City to move to Germany in 2017. It was Dortmund’s attention to detail that attracted Bellingham and his father.
“There is a person there for every player, especially Otto [Addo], who has worked with the young players,” Bellingham said in 2020 of the man who is also Ghana’s coach at this World Cup. “He is great. Everyone has that support system to work for their chance in the first team. The way they integrate young players into the first-team squad is next level. There is not a club in Europe that does it quite like them.”
Bellingham this season became the only English teenager to have scored in four consecutive Champions League games, and Pep Guardiola suggested last month that the player might not have been given the same opportunities in England. “Maybe he would not get the minutes,” the Manchester City manager said. “The best thing for a young player to be better is to play minutes.”
But after Southgate expressed fears in 2019 that only 15% of players in the Premier League could be eligible for England in a decade unless clubs gave more opportunities to homegrown players, last season more than 40% qualified – the highest since 2005. With an average age of 26.4 years, England have the eighth-youngest squad in Qatar and second-youngest of the European countries, behind Spain.
Saka joined Arsenal when he was seven and became the first player born in the 21st century to play in the Premier League when he made his debut in January 2019. His development under first Unai Emery then Mikel Arteta is testament to the importance they have placed in youth in recent years. Of those who came through the academy at the same time as Saka, Joe Willock, Josh Dasilva, Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah have played in the Premier League this season.
It is similar at Chelsea, where Mount and Conor Gallagher joined at a young age and there were six English players in their starting lineup against Leicester in August, including five academy graduates.
“Our preference is to look at some really exciting young ones who’ve proved at youth level that they’re as good anything around the world,” Southgate said when he called up Mount, Sancho and a 22-year-old James Maddison in October 2018 – perhaps not coincidentally also the day he extended his contract until this World Cup. “That should give us confidence that with the right development and the right opportunity, they can translate that into the senior team.”