Nestled up high in northern Portugal, in the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus, a star of the modern game lit up a cold, drizzly night.
Braga’s Municipal Stadium is carved into a granite hillside, and this week it hosted a footballing pilgrimage.
Two stands are held together by steel strings with the valley of River Cavardo next to an old quarry and a cliff face completing a unique backdrop. It is quite remarkable to think this UNESCO World Heritage Site is man-made, but on Tuesday it witnessed Stourbridge steel, an intervention from the divine that is becoming all-too familiar.
On a night of tributes for the late Bobby Charlton in Manchester, some 870 miles away, Jude Bellingham continued to show why he is the brightest of English talents dreaming of following in the great man’s footsteps.
Collecting a ball from Vinicius Jr, Bellingham slotted an effortless curling strike just inside the far post. Another goal. Another match-winner for Real Madrid.
Bellingham is yet to blank in consecutive games this season, scoring his 11th goal in 12 to help the 14-time European champion earn the away victory and strengthen their lead in Champions League Group C. Only Serhou Guirassy (15) and Lautaro Martínez (12) have netted more for a big five European league side this term.
He became just the second player to score in each of his first three Champions League appearances for Real after Christian Karembeu in 1998. But it is the second successive season he has registered in each of the first three matchdays, after doing the same with Dortmund in 2022.
Still only 20, Bellingham – who joined Real from Borussia Dortmund in the summer for £88.5m – will likely have another three World Cups to emulate the Boys of ’66 – but for now, he has his eyes fixed on a first Clasico.
With his trademark celebration already copied by those present at the Santiago Bernabeu, Bellingham can endear himself further among Madridistas on Saturday when Real take on Barcelona in their temporary home at the Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys.
He is a freak of nature, a joke, who brings joy at the top of Don Carlo’s diamond as his No 10.
In a recent column for Sky, Paul Merson wrote: “Football is all about decision making. At the moment, he is making the decisions of a 28 or 29-year-old player and getting them all right.
“It’s so hard to explain what he’s doing. He’s years ahead of his time.”
But while Bellingham may prove to be England’s X-factor for years to come, it has always been about the here and now at Real Madrid – and for that, manager Carlo Ancelotti deserves credit for how the player has hit the ground running.
The Italian has given Bellingham the keys to the Spanish capital – but confessed surprise at his ability following the midfielder’s match-winning display against Napoli earlier this month.
“What is surprising about Bellingham is that he is only 20. It feels like he’s 30,” said Ancelotti. “For his character, his personality. He is always focused on the match, he knows what he needs to do, and this is rare in a 20-year-old player.
“Then you have all his quality, his physical strength, his skills. It is surprising, we are all a bit surprised.”
Ancelotti’s career has been blessed with an unbelievable array of attacking talent. He’s worked with Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. At AC Milan, he was spoiled by Kaka, and he later took James Rodriguez to Everton following their previous spells.
All capable of deciding close contests through manipulating the ball in tight spaces. Having elevating those careers to the next level, Bellingham is in perfect hands to do precisely the same. What we are witnessing on the pitch is a product of how his manager has seamlessly integrated the prodigy into his new surroundings off it.
A sign of Ancelotti’s influence was already seen in how Gareth Southgate deployed him in the recent European Qualifier against Italy. It was James Maddison – the Premier League’s most influential player this season – who missed out on starting.
Perhaps the biggest compliment Ancelotti has paid Bellingham is how he has completely restructured his side to cater for him. He is simultaneously replacing Karim Benzema’s goals while smoothing over any discernible cracks in the evolution from the Kroos-Modric axis.
Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga are still very exciting prospects, and while they have had far longer to adapt to the limelight, it is ‘Belli’ – as he is known in the dressing room – who has made the Madrid midfield his playground.
At previous times when British exports have made the same journey, thinking of Gareth Bale and David Beckham, it has come later in their careers.
Neither Beckham nor Bale, despite the latter’s highly decorated stay, departed with a feeling that it was ever their team. Not nearly as much as this Real is becoming synonymous with Bellingham. He is already building on the basic level of Spanish with which he arrived.
“Phew, now comes the tough part,” he joked in the mixed zone after scoring his first goal in the colours of Madrid against Manchester United in a pre-season victory in Houston.
Donning the No 5 jersey – previously worn Zinedine Zidane – if there was any additional pressure, you wouldn’t know it.
“My greatest quality is that I can do a bit of everything,” Bellingham said at his unveiling. “That’s my best strength and it allows me to play in different positions on the pitch.”
It was why he wore the No 22 at Birmingham, as he did with Dortmund and with England in Qatar. In an interview with talkSPORT, former youth coach Mike Dodds said: “He would have been about 13 or 14 and like most boys that age, they want to be a No 10.
“And I remember, we sat down with him and we said, ‘we think you’re doing yourself a disservice, we think you can do all of it.’ So we came up with, ‘we think you can be a 22’.”
A 4, an 8 and a 10 all rolled into one. A box-to-box midfielder whose shirt was retired at Birmingham and whose purple patch in front of goal shows no signs of going away.
Barcelona manager Xavi would love nothing better than to mark his second anniversary in charge with victory over the club’s great rivals, but his pre-match press conference will be dominated by questions regarding how he plans to stop one man.
Earlier this year, HS2 – the high-speed railway route currently under construction between London and Birmingham – revealed designs for a brand new 150-metre Birmingham bridge named after Bellingham.
Ancelotti eased concerns over the fitness over his chief viaduct to further silverware after Bellingham was withdrawn late on in Braga, saying: “He felt a little load on the abductors. The field was soft but it’s nothing special.”
Unlike Real’s runaway train.
Barcelona host Real Madrid in LaLiga on Saturday; kick-off 3.15pm