Kane and Bellingham take different paths to Champions League duel | Jonathan Liew

Kane and Bellingham take different paths to Champions League duel | Jonathan Liew

There were a few tourists from Madrid taking selfies outside the Allianz Arena on Monday lunchtime and, as footballing pilgrimages go, this is one you really have to want. Wedged between two major road junctions and approached either through a concrete jungle of slip roads or a 40-minute schlep on the train followed by a long trudge past a sewage treatment plant, perhaps the nicest thing you can say about the location of Bayern Munich’s stadium is that it at least offers easy access to everywhere else.

How many times will Harry Kane have to peer at this stadium through blacked-out windows before it begins to feel like home? The language will take years to master, if he ever manages it. The Allianz does not feel like a part of Munich in the way that the Estadio Bernabéu looms above Madrid or the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium dominates the High Road. And, of course, his name has already been made at the boyhood club that still has a buy-back clause for him. However long he stays at Bayern, on some level home will always be somewhere else.

Jude Bellingham has only been at Real Madrid for 10 months, and yet already it feels like 10 years. As he returns to Germany for the Champions League semi-final, he does so as one of the most adored footballers on the planet, as universally accepted as your favourite credit card. More than this: somehow in his carriage and comportment, Bellingham seems to represent some intangible quality that goes beyond anything he can do on a football pitch, the same quality that Kane – for all his talents – does not.

Call it old-school appeal, call it romance. Bellingham, so goes the popular mythology, is the guy who turned down the bright lights of the petrostates for the timeless white of Real Madrid. Kane is the cynical trophy-chaser who moved to the guaranteed trophy club and somehow failed to win a trophy. This, then, is a story about timing and fortune, how to plot out a career in this most ruthless of businesses, the choices you make and when you make them. This is how a man with two permanent clubs in 20 years comes to be seen as a calculating mercenary, and a man with three clubs in four years comes to be seen as the embodiment of old-school footballing romance.

Of course Birmingham – the city and the club – was never going to hold Bellingham for long. From an early age this unusually precocious midfielder was clear-eyed about the direction in which he wanted to take his career. He visited Dortmund, studied their style, observed how young players developed, felt an immediate connection. “I wouldn’t play for a club that I genuinely didn’t fall in love with,” he would later say.

Harry Kane with his hands on his headView image in fullscreen

Three years later the stakes were higher but the calculations largely the same. There was a new train leaving the station, but in order to catch it Bellingham would need to change tracks. Dortmund loved him and he loved them, but Madrid only call once. His England teammates twisted his ear in Qatar. Gareth Southgate tried to persuade him to move to the Premier League. But off the pitch as on it, Bellingham would go wherever he wanted.

Meanwhile, in Kane’s world, the horizons were beginning to narrow. If Bellingham was adamant about moving on and moving up, then Kane was equally steadfast about where his career was going. He wanted to taste glory with Tottenham. He wanted to hone and improve himself into a record-breaking, one-club Premier League titan.

It didn’t work. When exactly this became apparent to Kane is a matter of some conjecture. But through the Champions League final defeat of 2019, the disintegration of the Mauricio Pochettino regime, the pandemic-fuelled misery of José Mourinho, the very public flirtation with Manchester City in 2021, the deadening stasis of the Nuno Espírito Santo and Antonio Conte years, something essential seemed to break in his spirit.

In hindsight his fate was sealed in the summer of 2018, when he chained himself to a six-year contract shortly before winning the Golden Boot and becoming one of the hottest properties in world football. It was the romantic move. But it was also the moment when the doors began to close, when other futures began to evaporate. Of course he can still thrive and compete and win. But those crucial wasted years between 26 and 30 can never be unwasted.

Bellingham celebrates after scoring in injury time to win the clásico for Real Madrid earlier this monthView image in fullscreen

Bayern’s coach, Thomas Tuchel, was sparkling and effusive in his praise of the player on Monday. He described him as “extraordinary”, praised him as “fantastic here in the Bundesliga”, paid tribute to his “huge level of personality” and the way he handles “this club and all the expectations”. The player he was referring to was Bellingham. Asked how he would rate his own star striker in relation, Tuchel at first failed to understand the question, and then gruffly sidestepped it.

Clearly there are other reasons, footballing reasons, why these two great English players are perceived so differently. But there is a lesson here, too, in the importance of recognising when an opportunity is there to be seized. Kane has navigated his career like a man who always has another season. Bellingham has navigated his like a man playing his last. Would Bellingham ever allow his career to drift in the way Kane’s did at Tottenham? Would he ever tie himself to a six-year contract at a club unwilling to sell its best players?

Perhaps this explains why one of these two players is on the cusp of everything, and the other is on the cusp of nothing. Talent is not enough. Hard work is not enough. Desire is not enough. You need a little luck, and a little timing. Because the future doesn’t wait.

Source: theguardian.com