TBorussia Dortmund’s motto is “Echte Liebe”, which means “true love”. But these days, it evokes mixed feelings among Dortmund fans. For many, this is a nostalgic throwback to the club’s heyday under Jürgen Klopp, when the phrase first became popular. For others, it is little more than a blank marketing song, a hashtag, and a symbol of how a club built on working-class passion began to take on an increasingly corporate character.
At the human heart of this division lies the club’s approach to dealing with young players. Over the past decade, Dortmund has made little secret of its business model: sign up with the most promising teenagers in the world, give them useful game time in an elite environment, and then look for a profit. For the fans, this presents a dilemma that cannot be resolved: under this policy, Dortmund have produced some of the most exciting attacking teams in Europe, playing fast football with hungry young players. But along the same lines, is it entirely possible to attach true love to someone who might leave in a couple of years?
Perhaps that is why Dortmund fans have often been a little restrained in their adoration for 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 his shoulders rather than any real feud. But it’s hard to think of a young foreign player who is more directly loved by Dortmund fans than Judd Bellingham: the 18-year-old midfielder from Stourbridge who has made himself indispensable in the span of a season and a bit not just for the Dortmund team but themselves.
Bellingham is recovering from a knee injury and may not start on Saturday classic against Bayern Munich. Even his absence from last weekend’s match against Wolfsburg, he has been a constant presence in the Bundesliga and Champions League this season, and one of his most important measures is that in his absence, the coach, Marco Rose, felt the need to rework his entire midfield, bringing in Emre Can and Mahmoud Daoud. With his ability to make critical contributions across all five phases of the game – attack, defense, transition attack, defensive transition and set-pieces – Bellingham has a well-balanced skill set that few at his position can match – and certainly no one at his club.
Bellingham is the most fouled player in the Bundesliga and the third most prolific striker. It ranks fourth in terms of pressures and fourth in procedures for creating goals. He can score amazing solo goals like the one against Arminia Bielefeld, where he passed three players before dunking the ball over the goalkeeper. Even if you ignore his age, is there a more complete midfielder in world football now?
“I love his style of play,” Rose said of Bellingham. “He has that focused aggressiveness, he works incredibly hard for the team and despite all his youth he plays very brave football. His mentality, the sharpness with which he plays football, his will to win and the football solutions he finds – all this is extraordinary.” Mats Hummels, One of the oldest players on the team, he was even more excited: “I think I’ve already told Judd 25 times that I love him,” the center back said in October. “He’s the most mature, most serious 18-year-old I’ve ever seen.”
It tells us how many people mention the Bellingham mentality. Pretty much everyone who worked with him growing up – whether in Birmingham City or with age group teams in England – knew he’d be good. He had the technical ability, he had the physical make-up, and he had a spherical mind. But that last step you don’t know for sure, the real lesson from Bellingham’s rise from the academy to the Champions League is that his character – the ability to lose himself entirely in football and yet remain largely unchanged as a person – is perhaps his strongest of all. .
“When I’m alone, there’s nothing else in my head except football,” Bellingham said. He claims to be “almost obsessed with the tiniest details of the game,” which may explain why he’s been able to maintain his rapid rate of improvement even as expectations continue to rise. Not just a bystander, not just an attacker, not just a creative influence or physical presence: Bellingham’s sheer complexity is what sets it apart, and it probably needs a mind similar to complexity to maintain its continuity.
However, Bellingham is the exact opposite of a bloodless football machine. There was a moment earlier in the season when angry Bayer Leverkusen fans were tossing glasses of beer at him and Haaland as they celebrated a goal in the corner. Instinctively, Bellingham grabbed a goblet in one hand and took a big gulp: “My first beer,” he joked on social media. On another occasion, Haaland was stunned by interrupting one of his post-match interviews to put an impromptu kiss on the 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.” No wonder Dortmund fans can’t get enough of this guy now. Of course, Dortmund know Bellingham, too, could one day end up moving to new pastures, even if the club is signed for 2025 and may need a bid of more than £100m to change it.
But for now, quite a few players seem to sum up the way modern Dortmund likes to see themselves. Young and gorgeous but humble with her. Committed and loyal, but not as boring as in Bayern Munich. A player who deserves to be left behind. A player worth fighting for. A player who deserves true love.