Jude Bellingham, Borussia Dortmund’s 17 year old midfielder, exploded into global football’s consciousness with a great goal against Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals. He’s the second Englishman to reach 10 games in the tournament under 18 years of age. He caused such an impression that Pep Guardiola, City coach, said: “He must be lying, he can’t be 17, he’s too good to be that age, he’s a fantastic player.”
What many are discovering now, some others did three years ago. It was like that for Andres Manzano, the Cornella graduate and a sporting assessor for Birmingham City in the Championship. In April 2018 he arrived in the English city and went to watch some youth games. He recalls it was a rainy day, like so many are, and he was under umbrellas with the youth academy coordinator, watching an U23 game against an amateur but grown-up side.
After 10 minutes Manzano asked how old the No 7 was, the number Bellingham was wearing in the game. “He’s the 2003 group,” was the response. Manzano was not sure. “Did I misunderstand?” he wondered. But he shut his mouth and let his head spin. If he was from 2003, that means he would be 15 and was playing against rivals who could be twice his age. “He had a special relationship with the ball and a control of the game that was scary,” remembers Manzano.
It didn’t seem to fit his young age. Like Guardiola, he thought there was some kind of trick. At a corner Bellingham came over to the sidelines and Manzano had a good look at him. He did seem very young and he took another chance at asking the coordinator again. “Did you say 2003?” the response was clear. “Yes, yes this kid is the captain of the England U16 team.” Manzano could not believe his eyes. “A marvel of a kid,” he said. “He had an impressive maturity in his play, outside the norm.”
The game was over and Manzano went to the club’s director general to ask about his contract situation, because at 15 years old the risk of him leaving for free was high. That’s when he found out Borussia Dortmund were already interested. And, passionate as he is, Manzano insisted that the club give him a professional contract and play him in the first team. “I have seen many players of this age and I could only remember something similar with Iniesta or Messi. I remember that I told Birmingham they had an Iniesta in their hands, a future Ballon d’Or, and they had to protect him, not let him escape.”
That was in March. In the next season, 19-20, Bellingham did preseason in Portugal with the first team, then coached by Catalan Pep Clotet. Bellingham won him over and played 41 games that season, at the age of 16. His debut saw him strike late on, at the end of the game. A magic touch.
After that season Dortmund came back, along with Juventus and Manchester United, but Dortmund made the best offer. 30 million euros, the most expensive transfer in history for a player of his age.
And that’s how Manzano helped the English club. He did not discover Bellingham but it was he who helped give an important shove into the world of professionalism. Now even Pep Guardiola is an admirer.
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