Jude Bellingham is just 18, but he’s already reached the brutal conclusion that racist abuse is something as a Black footballer in the 21st century he is going to be confronted with.
“After (the) majority of games I’ll get a racist message in my Instagram inbox,” the Borussia Dortmund midfielder and England international tells CNN’s Darren Lewis.
“The first couple of times I remember putting on my story and I received quite a good reaction in terms of people saying that they’re with me.”
“There’s not a single job in the world where you deserve to be criticized with racism,” adds Bellingham. “I’ll never forget, that was the first time I properly got a batch of messages.”
Bellingham says there are inconsistencies with the way football’s governing bodies deal with racism, compared to other incidents of misbehavior, given that FIFA has official rules holding clubs accountable for the racist actions of their supporters.
In December, Germany’s Football Association (DFB) fined him $45,000 (40,000 euros) for comments he made about referee Felix Zwayer, following his side’s 3-2 defeat against Bayern Munich.
The DFB called Bellingham’s comments “unsportsmanlike behavior” as his comments had “doubted the impartiality of the referee.”
“The club were quick to send someone to message me and make sure I was alright and I really appreciate that. Had teammates that messaged me, of course, family members,” says Bellingham, referring to when he was racially abused.
“I didn’t really receive anything from the DFB or FA or anything like that. And I always kind of compare it to when I said the thing about the referee in December.
“They were very quick to get into contact to give me my fine, give me my punishment, kind of make it a big drama in the media.
“I’ve learned from that. I know what I can and can’t say. I know that, you know, sometimes I have to control my emotion better,” he says.
“But, you know, when you give that more energy than the situation that I was, I felt like I was going through … maybe we are alone and maybe they’re not interested, maybe they don’t care. And maybe it is down to me and down to us to work independently to get our message out.”
Players or officials who engage in racist words or behavior can be sanctioned with a suspension lasting at least 10 matches, or “any other appropriate disciplinary measure,” according to the latest edition of the FIFA Disciplinary Code.
Clubs can be fined a minimum of CHF 20,000 ($20,076) if their supporters show discriminatory behaviour, the code adds. Other sanctions include points deduction, playing a match without spectators, forfeiting a match, expulsion from a tournament, or relegation to a lower division.
In September 2021, FIFA sanctioned the Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ) for “numerous fans’” racist behavior during a World Cup qualifier match against England.
The MLSZ was fined $216,000 and ordered to play its next FIFA-sanctioned home match without supporters, after ITV reporter Gabriel Clarke, who was at the Puskas Arena in Budapest, says he heard monkey chants directed at Raheem Sterling, and at Bellingham as he was preparing to come on as a substitute, during England’s 4-0 victory earlier in September.
CNN has reached out to the DFB for comment.
Born in 2003 and raised in Stourbridge, England, Bellingham joined the Birmingham City FC academy at the age of seven, according to the club’s website.
His parents, Denise Bellingham and Mark Bellingham, would drive him to training about five times per week, but it was only when he was scouted for the England Under-15 team that they realized how much potential he had, according to the club’s website.
Mark forged a prolific career in non-league football – netting over 700 goals across 22 years – while serving as a sergeant for the West Midlands Police, the website adds.
During his meteoric rise on the world stage Bellingham has remained confident and poised, something he says wouldn’t be possible without his family’s support – especially his mother’s.
“I speak a lot about my parents and the people that have kind of brought me up in football and not just in football, but in life as well,” he says.
“My mom, my dad are two huge role models of mine because of the way they’ve obviously carried themselves, the things that they’ve had to face in their own journeys.”
“She’s always given me a lot of lessons on how I’ll be perceived by other people sometimes because of the color of my skin, sometimes the way that we’re kind of stereotyped.”
“I think for her to do a lot of the stuff that she’s done just to make sure me and my brother never have to want for anything,” he says. “I can’t put into words how much it means to me.
“I’ve got a Black woman that I live with every day and I see the way she carries herself,” he adds. “My mom is certainly one of my heroes off the pitch, if not the biggest one.”
It seems Bellingham may share some of his prodigious talent with his younger brother, 16-year-old Jobe, an up-and-coming professional footballer who also signed with Birmingham City FC.
When Jobe made his debut for the club in January, Bellingham paid tribute to him on social media with the caption, “So f***ing proud.”
Bellingham celebrates his brother’s success, but is equally committed to making him aware of the obstacles that Black players face in football.
“It’s important that I make him aware of challenges that he’ll face from a football point of view and also from a race point of view.
“I can’t let down other kids that look up to me,” he says. “I think that that gives me great pleasure as well. And like I said, it’s a responsibility that I’m willing to carry.”
There are only five out of 91 managers and head coaches in England’s top four divisions who are from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds.
While the proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic players in the UK is about 25%, such figures have not been replicated in recent years when it comes to positions of authority in football, CNN previously reported.
Bellingham says he has only worked with a handful of Black coaches across his career so far including Chris Powell, Michael Johnson, Deon Burton and Dele Adebola.
“I can’t discredit any of the coaches that I’ve had because they’ve all been brilliant for my development,” he says.
“But, you know, I do think about it from a different perspective, the way I think about opportunity and I think about, you know, what if I wasn’t a footballer and I wanted to go into coaching and I wanted to do this and I wanted to that – would I be given the same opportunity as some of my friends who are White, for example?
“Racism … It feels like one of those things that will never go away,” he says. “I think there are people in power that can take more responsibility in that fight. And I don’t think they are.”
Bellingham became the second-youngest player to appear at Euro 2020 last year when he represented England in their match against Croatia, during the group stages of the tournament, according to the official UEFA website.
The team triumphantly reached the final of the prestigious European tournament, after winning a series of gripping matches against favorites including Denmark and Germany. It was the first time the men’s side had reached the last stage of a major competition since winning the World Cup in 1966.
Amid a global pandemic – when many England fans were just emerging from the UK’s first national lockdown with feelings of grief and isolation – the team sought to bring the country together.
But when England lost the Euro 2020 final to Italy after an extremely fraught 3-2 penalty shootout defeat at Wembley Stadium, the country’s semblance of unity crumbled.
Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were all targeted with racist abuse on social media by some fans, after they missed penalties in the final. The team’s manager, Gareth Southgate, described the abuse as “unforgivable” and “just not what we stand for.”
Reflecting on the tournament, Bellingham says: “I think the biggest takeaway from the whole experience for me was the contrast.”
“We showed real character to win the games and it felt like the country had united,” he says. “I know these are select idiots, of course, and it’s not the whole nation turning against them.
“I’m sure that they probably had a bigger comeback of support, but the only support they should need is for missing the penalty, not for the racism that they’ve received after it.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time with Jadon obviously because he’s from Dortmund, Bukayo I’d spoken to quite a bit and Marcus at the camp and you know … They’re human,” he adds.
“Then you see them kind of brought down like that. It’s like it’s disgusting, but it’s hard to take, to be honest, as a teammate. All of a sudden, you know, you’re English for seven games, you miss a pen and you’re nothing.”
Southgate’s humble and temperate managerial style was praised throughout the tournament.
Ahead of Euro 2020, he wrote an open letter to fans titled “Dear England,” in which he defended his squad’s decision to take the knee before matches, as a show of support for anti-racism.
“Gareth Southgate was brilliant. I remember the next camp after the Euros we did like a debrief for the tournament. And he took a lot of time to kind of talk about what had happened in that situation,” Bellingham says. “He’s always brought it up as a topic in meetings.
“As a Black player, you feel very grateful for that. You shouldn’t have to deal with it again. And I will keep repeating that. But you know, it’s good to feel supported.”