Jude Bellingham following in David Beckham's footsteps: Real Madrid's history with English players
After three superb seasons at Borussia Dortmund, Jude Bellingham is set to move onto his next challenge. It has been widely reported that the 19-year-old is on the verge of agreeing to terms with Real Madrid, who are confident of striking a final deal with Dortmund worth somewhere between €100m (£88.3m/$110.4m) and €120m (£106.0m/$132.m).
Bellingham had also been a target for Manchester City and Liverpool, but is said to have decided that Santiago Bernabeu is the best place for his development. Real certainly have a strong recent history when it comes to nurturing young talent, with Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni and Fede Valverde all thriving under Carlo Ancelotti this season.
Bellingham will be competing with that all-star trio for a regular spot in midfield, which shouldn't faze him in the slightest. He has already proven he can deliver at the very highest level with Dortmund and England.
But history suggests that success won't come easy for Bellingham in the Spanish capital. Only five English players have played for Real before him, and not all of them managed to live up to expectations in an environment that can quickly become a pressure cooker if things aren't going well.
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Way before the Galactico era that saw Real fork out huge fees on players such as Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo, Laurie Cunningham became the club's most expensive signing ever when joining from West Brom for £950,000.
After making the move in 1979, rumour has it the talented winger nutmegged Jose Antonio Camacho in his very first training session, which set the tone for what was to come. Cunningham spent the next five years of his career at the Bernabeu, scoring 19 goals in 62 appearances.
Real stormed to a league and cup double in Cunningham's debut campaign, as he made an instant impact with his searing pace and skill. Barcelona were among his victims that year as he shone in a 2-0 away victory for Real to earn a standing ovation from the Camp Nou crowd - a feat that no other Blancos player in their illustrious history has managed.
An unfortunate run of injuries eventually led to Cunningham being loaned out to Manchester United and Sporting Gijon, before he was sold outright to Marseille. Cunningham went on to play for Leicester City and Rayo Vallecano, and also won six caps for England over the course of his career.
He was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 33 in 1989, but his legacy lives on and he will always have a special place in the hearts of Real supporters.
Real didn't look to English shores for new talent again until the approach of the new millennium, with Steve McManaman catching their eye after nine years on Liverpool's books. He won the FA Cup and League Cup during his time at Anfield, but the quality of his performances went under the radar to an extent due to the fact he played in a disjointed Reds squad that had fallen behind Manchester United and Arsenal.
Real wasn't the most stable club when he joined either, with iconic forward Raul famously sounding an ominous warning to his new team-mate upon his arrival in Spain. "The dressing room is a cesspit of lies, treachery and whispers," he said. "I feel sorry for new players like Steve McManaman coming into the club. If McManaman thinks he is coming to one of the world’s top clubs, then he has made a big mistake."
The nimble-footed winger began life at Real with an assist and a goal in his first two appearances, but they were unable to build up any consistency in the league and John Toshack paid the price with his job. Vincente del Bosque was drafted in to replace him in the dugout, and McManaman then played a vital role in Los Blancos' surge back up the table and run to the Champions League final.
Real ultimately fell short in La Liga, but lifted their seventh European Cup after a 3-0 win against Valencia in an all-Spanish showpiece. McManaman set up Fernando Morientes' opener and doubled Real's advantage with a superb volley from just outside the box, before Raul wrapped up the victory late on.
From that point onwards, McManaman's status as a key member of Del Bosque's squad was secure. He went on to help Real win two La Liga titles and another European Cup, before departing for Manchester City in 2003.
During an interview in 2015, Del Bosque summed up why McManaman became a cult hero at the Bernabeu: “He was a caballero, a gentleman, a stupendous guy; he always had a smile, he never complained, he was great, a leader. He related to everyone very well; he united people.”
Real's Galactico era was in full swing back in the summer of 2003, and Florentino Perez had his sights set on one more addition to complete a star-studded squad full of world-class talent. Enter David Beckham, who completed a £25 million switch to the Bernabeu after winning six Premier League titles and the Champions League across 11 glorious years at Manchester United.
"He is a man of our times and a symbol of modern-day stardom," the Real president said at Beckham's grand unveiling. "And what is certain is Real Madrid have signed Beckham because he's a great footballer and a very dedicated professional."
Beckham didn't boast the same level of genius on the ball as Zidane, or the goalscoring prowess of Ronaldo and Raul, but he quickly won over the Madrid faithful with his industrious style of play and brilliance from set-pieces.
As it turned out, though, the big names didn't deliver big rewards. Beckham's Real career opened with success in the Supercopa de Espana, but he would only win one more piece of silverware after that. Valencia won the 2003-04 La Liga crown before Barcelona stormed to back-to-back domestic crowns under Frank Rijkaard to become the dominant force in Spanish football.
Beckham did enjoy one final hurrah, however, as Los Blancos rallied to wrestle the title away from their fiercest rivals in 2006-07. Fabio Capello only used the England captain sparingly at the beginning of the campaign, and it looked like he had played his last game for Real after it was announced in January that he had agreed on a move to MLS outfit LA Galaxy.
But Beckham fought his way back into favour and was one of the driving forces behind Real's run to their 30th La Liga crown, which they sealed courtesy of a superior head-to-head record against Barca after a dramatic final-day draw against Real Zaragoza.
Real reportedly raked in over $600m in merchandising sales during Beckham's time at the club, and he remains a popular figure in Madrid to this day.
A year after Beckham's arrival, Real decided it was a good idea to pair him with his England team-mate Michael Owen, who had become one of the most prolific strikers in Europe at Liverpool. He hit 158 goals in 297 games across all competitions for the Reds, and became only the fourth English player to ever win the Ballon d'Or after an outstanding 2000-01 season.
That was when Real initially started tracking Owen, when he was at the very peak of his powers - a lightning-fast, dynamic forward with unerring composure in front of goal. Unfortunately, when they eventually managed to sign him, his decline had already begun. Niggling injuries held him back during his final season at Liverpool, and he seemed to lose some of his explosive pace as a result.
The modest £8m fee Real paid for Owen's services reflected that, and he spent his first few months at the Bernabeu on the bench. He failed to score in his first six appearances for the club, but finally got off the mark to fire Real to a 1-0 Champions League victory over Dynamo Kiev in October, which gave him an injection of confidence.
Owen scored six goals in his next eight outings, and ended up finishing the campaign with 16 to his name across all competitions. He was Real's second-top scorer in La Liga behind Ronaldo despite only making 20 starts, but he never really settled in Spain, and the summer arrivals of Robinho and Julio Baptista made a return to the Premier League inevitable.
"My family struggled. I could write a book on the year. I enjoyed the football but my family wanted to come home," Owen told Off the Ball in 2013. Newcastle took him off Real's hands in the end, and he went on to play for Manchester United and Stoke City before retiring at 33 after a whole host of serious injuries.
Shortly after the capture of Owen, Real raided the Premier League for another English star, snapping up Jonathan Woodgate from Newcastle for £13m. "No one is pleased that he’s gone because we know what we’ve lost. At his best, he’s the best in the country," Magpies boss Sir Bobby Robson said after his departure.
In truth, Woodgate never really got the chance to show his quality at St James' Park. He established himself among English football's elite defenders at Leeds United, but his 18-month spell at Newcastle was overshadowed by injury.
Critics couldn't understand why Real were taking the gamble on Woodgate, who wasn't even known to a large portion of the Spanish media before his transfer to the Bernabeu. It was something of a miracle that he was even able to pass his medical, as he touched down in Spain nursing a torn thigh muscle, but Perez insisted “he’ll be playing within three weeks”. That statement turned out to be a kiss of death, as Woodgate sat out the entire 2004-05 campaign after numerous setbacks with his recovery.
Woodgate finally returned to full fitness over the summer, and made his long-awaited debut for Real on September 22, 2005 against Athletic Club, some 17 months after his last competitive appearance. Lining up alongside Francisco Pavon in the heart of the defence in front of a packed-out Bernabeu crowd, the nerves would surely have been great for Woodgate. But few would have expected them to consume him quite so spectacularly.
Twenty-five minutes into the contest, Joseba Etxeberria cut in from the left before unleashing a shot from the far corner of the box, which looked to be heading wide - until Woodgate threw himself at the ball and diverted a header past a helpless Iker Casillas in the Real net. Woodgate then picked up a yellow card for a rash tackle on Carlos Gurpegi before the break, which set the stage for the completion of the former Newcastle star's waking nightmare.
Robinho netted an equaliser for Real before Raul put them in front, but Woodgate gave Athletic hope when he picked up another booking, this time for throwing his forearm into Etxeberria's face. Los Blancos managed to grind out a 3-1 win despite Woodgate's horror show, but he would never live it down.
Woodgate would only feature in 13 more games for Real as injuries continued to plague him, and was voted the worst signing of the 21st century by readers of Spanish newspaper Marca after his exit in 2007.
- Getty Images
What will Bellingham's legacy be?
So what can we expect from Bellingham in Madrid? It's probably safe to say that he won't flop like Woodgate or Owen, especially with his body unlikely to start failing him at this early stage in his career.
Cunningham and Beckham didn't set the bar impossibly high, but they did both leave a lasting mark at the Bernabeu. For Bellingham to do the same, he cannot afford to let the hype surrounding him get to his head.
The Dortmund star has displayed maturity belying his age throughout his time in Germany and with the English national team, and needs to keep a level head when he arrives at the Bernabeu. Real are the most scrutinised club in world football, and when Bellingham puts on that famous white shirt, the spotlight will be firmly focused on him. For the amount of money the club is set to pay for him, he will be expected to hit the ground running.
The Spanish media will quickly turn on Bellingham if he fails to do so, as they did with Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic and James Rodriguez. Not everyone is cut out for life at Madrid. But Bellingham appears to be the full package. He's been colossal for Dortmund in both the Bundesliga and Champions League, and was England's standout performer at the 2022 World Cup.
Stepping up to an ever higher level should only help Bellingham advance, and unlike Beckham, he is joining a Real squad in perfect harmony. With one or two other additions in the summer, Real will fancy their chances of dethroning Barcelona in La Liga next season and keeping up their staggering recent record in the Champions League.
Bellingham has the quality and confidence to lead their charge. He was born for this stage, and if he continues on his current trajectory, he will go on to become one of the greatest midfielders of his generation.