The slogan of Borussia Dortmund is “Echte Liebe”, which means “real love”. These days, however, it conjures up mixed emotions among Dortmund fans. For many it is a nostalgic throwback to the club’s heyday under Jürgen Klopp, when the phrase first became popularised. For others it is little more than an empty marketing jingle, a hashtag, a symbol of how a club built on working-class passion has begun to take on an increasingly corporate character.
At the human heart of this divide lies the club’s approach to young players. Over the last decade, Dortmund have made little secret of their business model: sign the world’s most promising teenagers, offer them meaningful game time in an elite environment, then look to move them on at a profit. For supporters, this poses an insoluble dilemma: under this policy, Dortmund have fielded some of the most thrilling attacking sides in Europe, playing rapid football with young hungry players. But by the same token, is it entirely possible to attach real love to someone who may well leave in a couple of years?
This, perhaps, is why Dortmund fans have often been slightly restrained in their adoration of Erling Haaland, despite the fact that he is one of the greatest strikers in the world. Jadon Sancho was more popular, and his inevitable departure to Manchester United over the summer was accepted with a shrug of the shoulders rather than any genuine animosity. But it’s hard to think of a young foreign player more straightforwardly loved by Dortmund fans than Jude Bellingham: the 18-year-old midfielder from Stourbridge who in the space of a season and a bit has made himself indispensable not just to the Dortmund team but their psyche.
Bellingham is recovering from a knee injury and may not start Saturday’s Klassiker against Bayern Munich. Until missing last weekend’s game against Wolfsburg he had been an ever-present in the Bundesliga and Champions League this season, and it is a measure of his importance that in his absence the coach, Marco Rose, felt the need to rework his entire midfield, bringing in Emre Can and Mahmoud Dahoud. With his ability to make decisive contributions in all five phases of the game – attack, defence, attacking transition, defensive transition and set pieces – Bellingham has a balanced skillset that few in his position – and certainly nobody at his club – can match.
Bellingham is both the most fouled player in the Bundesliga and its third most prolific tackler. He ranks fourth for pressures and fourth for goal-creating actions. He can score incredible individual goals such as the one against Arminia Bielefeld, in which he snaked past three players before dinking the ball over the goalkeeper. Even if you disregard his age, is there a more complete midfielder in world football right now?
“I love his style of play,” Rose has said of Bellingham. “He has this focused aggression, works unbelievably hard for the team, and for all his youth plays a very courageous brand of football. His mentality, the intensity with which he plays football, the will to win and the football solutions he finds – all of that is extraordinary.” Mats Hummels, one of the oldest players in the squad, is even more gushing: “I think I’ve already told Jude 25 times that I love him,” the centre-back said in October. “He’s the most mature, most serious 18-year-old I’ve ever seen.”
It’s telling how many people mention Bellingham’s mentality. Pretty much everyone who worked with him growing up – whether at Birmingham City or with England age-group teams – knew he was going to be good. He had the technical ability, he had the physical makeup, he had the footballing brain. But that last step you never quite know for sure, and the real lesson of Bellingham’s rise from a Championship academy to the Champions League is that his personality – the ability to lose oneself fully in football and yet remain largely unchanged as a person – is perhaps his strongest attribute of all.
“When I’m alone, there is nothing else in my head except football,” Bellingham has said. He claims to be “almost obsessed with the smallest details of the game”, which may explain why he has been able to maintain his rapid rate of improvement even as the level of expectation continues to rise. Not simply a passer, not simply a tackler, not simply a creative influence or a physical presence: the sheer complexity to Bellingham’s game is what sets it apart, and maybe you need a mind of similar complexity to keep it going.
And yet Bellingham is the very opposite of a bloodless footballing machine. There was a moment earlier in the season when angry Bayer Leverkusen fans were hurling cups of beer at him and Haaland as they celebrated a goal in the corner. Instinctively, Bellingham caught one of the cups one-handed and took a swig: “my first beer,” he joked on social media. On another occasion he startled Haaland by interrupting one of his post-match interviews to plant an impromptu kiss on his cheek.
“My game reflects my origins,” Bellingham said in an interview with DAZN this season. “It’s a working-class style, because my game is based on energy and hard work.” Small wonder Dortmund fans can’t get enough of this guy right now. Of course, Dortmund know that one day Bellingham too may well end up leaving for pastures new, even if he is contracted to the club for 2025 and it would probably need a bid in excess of £100m to shift him.
But for now few players seem to encapsulate the way the modern Dortmund likes to see itself. Young and brilliant, but humble with it. Committed and loyal, but not boring like they are at Bayern. A player worth getting behind. A player worth fighting for. A player worthy of real love.