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Why Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham deserved to win the Kopa Trophy

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Jude Bellingham was one of the big favourites to lift the Kopa Trophy, celebrating the best player under 21 during the 2021/22 season. Ultimately, the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder finished fourth behind Jamal Musiala, Eduardo Camavinga and Gavi - bundesliga.com explains why he merited top spot...

The stars were out in force at the Chatelet Theatre on Monday, as France Football handed out the most prestigious individual prizes in the world's most popular team sport. Introduced in 2018, the Kopa Trophy is named after French great Raymond Kopa, and the jury is made up of men who know their stuff: former Ballon d'Or winners. Before Pedri in 2021, it was awarded to Kylian Mbappe and current Bayern Munich defender Matthijs de Ligt.

No fewer than six of the 10 nominees in 2022 currently ply their trade in the Bundesliga, which has become a perfect playground for gifted youngsters. Bellingham, Musiala (Bayern), Josko Gvardiol (RB Leipzig) and Florian Wirtz (Bayer Leverkusen) were already lighting up German football last term, while Karim Adeyemi (Salzburg to Dortmund) and Ryan Gravenberch (Ajax to Bayern) joined the party this summer.

The other candidates belong to some of football's powerhouses: Camavinga (Real Madrid), Gavi (Barcelona), Nuno Mendes (Paris Saint-Germain) and Bukayo Saka (Arsenal).

That's a group of no mean talent… so why should Bellingham have gone home with the award?

Watch: The Bundesliga's six Kopa Trophy nominees

First, let's look at the most easily measurable metric: goals and assists. As a central midfielder, Bellingham is not necessarily a player you would expect to be getting so involved in the final third of the pitch, yet he had a hand in no fewer than 20 goals in 2021/22, scoring six himself and setting up a whopping 14 more in all competitions.

"I feel most comfortable playing as a No.8, a box-to-box midfielder, and having a bigger impact on the opposition goal," he explained towards the end of last season. "When I'm playing as a defensive midfielder, I can dictate the tempo of the game, but I'm a bit far away when we're creating chances and shooting on goal. I'd rather be part of the action."

Bellingham has definitely been in the thick of it since joining BVB from Birmingham City in 2020. Unlike, say, his new teammate Adeyemi – who notched 23 goals as a striker for Salzburg last term – he has not only been instrumental in making goals happen, he has also fought to win the ball back in midfield, resisted the opposition press, and kept Dortmund on the front foot. In short, he is perhaps the most complete of all the Kopa Trophy contenders.

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Bellingham has made a habit of making and taking goals, but his bread and butter is winning the ball back for Dortmund in midfield. - Copyright: xHeikexFeiner/Eibner-Pressefotox EP_EER

What makes Bellingham stand out is his importance to one of Europe's biggest clubs and the remarkable influence he has been able to exert at such a tender age. Another statistic worth highlighting is the number of minutes played in 2021/22. With 3,796 minutes – the most of any Kopa Trophy nominee – Bellingham spent almost as much time on the pitch as Musiala (1,980) and Camavinga (1,866) combined, and they both made 30 league appearances. Gvardiol was next in line with 3,511 minutes for Leipzig, a difference of more than three 90-minute games. Even the favourite to win the Ballon d'Or, Real's Karim Benzema, only played 123 more minutes than the Dortmund No.22.

"Jude is an outstanding lad," former Dortmund coach Marco Rose told bundesliga.com in October 2021, after Bellingham notched a classy individual goal in a 3-1 win at Arminia Bielefeld. "He's been essential, he's played every minute for weeks now. He's in a great place mentally and gives us so much. He never stops running, he's playing so well."

That sense of being an 'essential' part of his side's first-choice XI doesn't necessarily apply to all of Bellingham's fellow contenders. Musiala, for example, made 18 of his 30 Bundesliga appearances from the bench in 2021/22, when Robert Lewandowski was still leading the line for Bayern. Since the prolific Pole left for Barcelona this summer, Musiala has racked up seven goals and eight assists, so next year's Kopa Trophy could be a different story…

Watch: Bellingham and Musiala, thriving under pressure

Bellingham was still up against some world-class youngsters though, make no mistake. The irrepressible Wirtz had an excellent campaign with Leverkusen, starting almost every game and contributing 10 goals and 14 assists until he suffered an unfortunate cruciate ligament injury in mid-March. Similarly, Gavi and Saka were among the first names on the teamsheet at Barcelona and Arsenal respectively, although neither player quite shares Bellingham's all-around attributes as an all-action midfielder.

In the 2021/22 Bundesliga campaign, the Dortmund dynamo won 433 challenges – the third-most of any player in the division – and was also in the top four for sprints (917) and intensive runs (2,626). He covered 333.8 kilometres – an average of 10.43 kilometres a game – and boasted an 85.9 per cent pass completion rate. As well as dominating the middle of the park, he scored three league goals and provided eight assists.

Though it will not count towards next week's vote, the teen sensation has picked up exactly where he left off in 2022/23 under new boss Edin Terzic. He hasn't missed a minute in the Bundesliga and tops the charts for challenges won (153 out of 256). He has only committed nine fouls – an average of one per game – but has been fouled 30 times, more than any other player. As if that wasn't enough, he has also had the most shots on goal of any BVB player (20). Such is his current influence, he was even handed the captain's armband in the absence of skipper Marco Reus on Matchday 8, describing it as "a dream come true".

"Jude Bellingham was excellent today," Terzic enthused after Dortmund thrashed Sevilla 4-1 in the UEFA Champions League, with Bellingham getting a goal and an assist. "Today you saw why he wears the captain's armband, even though he's so young. He really stepped up. It was a very good performance from Jude and the whole team."

"Jude is phenomenal," echoed England manager Gareth Southgate, who made Bellingham the youngest player to feature for the Three Lions at a major tournament when he brought him on against Croatia at UEFA Euro 2020. "He's hugely exciting, and he's going to be an important player for England."

Though he won't celebrate his 20th birthday until 29 June 2023, Bellingham has already won 17 caps for his country. Not only does he look guaranteed to make Southgate's squad for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar later this year, he is staking his claim for a starting berth in the England midfield when they take on Iran, the USA and Wales in Group B.

Bellingham made his England debut in November 2020 and looks set to represent the Three Lions at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. - JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

As he prepared to trade his usual black-and-yellow attire for a more formal black-tie outfit on Monday, Bellingham will perhaps reflect on the fact that individual accolades mean less to him than collective success. He explained as much after Dortmund's recent 1-1 draw with Sevilla, in which he netted his fourth goal in as many Champions League outings – a single-season record for an English teenager in the competition.

"I didn't really celebrate the goal like I normally do, because we weren't winning the game," he admitted to UEFA.com. "And that's always my ambition when I go on the pitch. It's nice to score goals obviously, but the team always comes first."