Livescore Thursday, April 25
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Real Madrid’s signing of Jude Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund took months to complete and, at many steps of the way, the Spanish club thought it impossible they would finally get their man.

That the 19-year-old England midfielder has finally joined is a testament to Madrid’s patience, persistence and powers of persuasion. Bellingham’s arrival also serves as a key example of both Madrid’s new recruitment strategy and how they prefer to operate in the market.

Even as recently as January, when newspaper headlines in Spain began to centre around Madrid’s interest in the youngster, senior club sources — who, like all those cited in this story, wished to remain anonymous in order to protect relationships — did not sound optimistic that they would pull it off.

“It’s just not possible, it’s very difficult to compete with Premier League clubs,” was a typical response from one such source. Madrid had been following Bellingham’s progress closely for a long while — but Manchester City and Liverpool had been, too.

At the time, there was good reason for Madrid’s pessimistic outlook. Dortmund had named their price — €150million (£128.2m; $163m) — and Madrid felt it was way out of their reach. On a personal and a professional level, relations between the two clubs are unbeatable, but Madrid president Florentino Perez considered the sums involved excessive.

Despite this, Madrid did not withdraw from the situation entirely. Even if some figures at the club weren’t holding high hopes, others had been tasked with continuing to work in the shadows. Chief scout Juni Calafat was their key man.

Those who know the Spanish-Brazilian describe him as a persuasive person but one who is often inexpressive and reserved. They also describe him as an expert in the fluctuations of the transfer market.

Calafat is considered the architect behind Madrid’s ongoing transition to a cast of younger players. Just as with the deals to sign Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni and Endrick, Calafat was the one charged with convincing Bellingham’s parents, Mark and Denise, that their son should move to Madrid.

And so, despite Madrid’s reservations over Dortmund’s asking price, Calafat, along with other members of his staff,  quietly kept the Spanish side in the game. They travelled to Dortmund and London on several occasions to hold meetings with Bellingham’s entourage. But despite attempts to keep these talks secret, one appointment with Mark, the player’s father and agent, before Chelsea’s home Champions League match with Dortmund on March 7, ended up becoming public. Madrid were worried it might jeopardise months of effort on their part.

Also in March, The Athletic reported that Liverpool’s chances of signing Bellingham were diminishing, with City and Madrid now seen as the more realistic options. A month later, further confirmation arrived as the picture became clearer still, with senior club sources at Liverpool indicating that, following lengthy discussions, the deal “stopped making sense”. Given the scale of the summer rebuild they require, they had decided to use their resources elsewhere.

A few days after that development, voices at Madrid still sounded cautious: “We’re waiting, but always from the premise that we’re not going to do anything stupid or anything economically mad.”

There was, however, a growing belief within the club that, if Bellingham were to agree to the move and choose them over City, they would be able to reach a deal with Dortmund, despite that initial asking price.

Madrid now accelerated their strategy to get that ‘yes’. In talks with Bellingham’s representatives, they said the player would be at the very centre of their long-term strategy for a complete renovation — one based on signing the best generational talents. They also sought to stress the positive sides of sharing a dressing room with legendary club midfielders Luka Modric and Toni Kroos as the pair reached the closing stages of their career.

Yet, some doubts emerged on the player’s side about whether there would be too much competition, and whether his playing time and progression might be threatened. Madrid guaranteed that Bellingham would be a key protagonist and again highlighted how the veterans would help his growth. Madrid also pointed to the examples of Vinicius Jr and Camavinga, who have both made significant progress, and told Bellingham that patience was key. Meanwhile, in negotiations with Modric and Kroos over their contract renewals, they told both players about their strong interest in signing the Englishman.

City were now Madrid’s only serious rival for Bellingham. Manager Pep Guardiola and former Dortmund team-mate Erling Haaland played their cards, calling the player on an almost weekly basis to try and convince him they were his best option, both in financial and sporting terms.

But between the end of April and the start of May, City were informed of Bellingham’s decision. He had chosen Madrid. Guardiola’s side visited the Santiago Bernabeu in the Champions League semi-finals knowing the player they wanted had rejected them — although it should also be said that City did not submit an offer or provide financial numbers to Dortmund or Bellingham regarding a transfer fee or salary.

Dortmund started preparing themselves for a sale.

Madrid had kept them informed of each step of their talks with the player and, at the end of April, Bellingham let the German club know he would only go to Madrid. He also communicated to them that, if he was not able to join Real, he would stay at Dortmund and see out his contract until 2025. Madrid were also aware they could sign Bellingham at a reduced price in 2024, given he would be a free agent a year later; it’s an important detail in negotiations and another reason why Dortmund wanted to sell him this summer.

With City seemingly out of the picture and Bellingham having made his choice clear, Madrid began to feel more confident they could reach a deal with Dortmund. But those at the Spanish club still referred to the transfer as being “very difficult” rather than “impossible”.

Nevertheless, newspaper front covers in Spain began to characterise Bellingham’s arrival as a done deal. Those with knowledge of the situation said the signing was not done — and that it wasn’t close to being done either. They also pointed out what had happened a year earlier with Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe. Newspaper reports had taken that move for granted too.

In reality, there would be several more weeks of negotiation before anything would be closed, but talks were going in the right direction.

Madrid repeated the same successful strategy they had used in 2022 with the signing of Tchouameni from Monaco. First, the player had approved the move, giving priority to the project while accepting that might mean missing out on better financial offers. Secondly, the player had communicated to their club they would only go to Madrid. Thirdly, both Madrid and the selling club settled on a financial compromise, with the addition of variable future fees on top of an initial lump sum being decisive.

The two clubs finally agreed on a fee for Bellingham once the Bundesliga season came to an end. The last round of league fixtures on May 27 saw Dortmund just miss out on the title to Bayern Munich.

Dortmund said they were seeking a fee of €150million at the start of the year. Their club statement on June 7 revealed the agreement with Madrid: the Spanish club would pay €103million as a fixed price, with an additional 30 per cent in variables. Calafat had left negotiations on the fee to Madrid chief executive Jose Angel Sanchez and club president Perez.

Lunchtime today (Thursday) in Madrid, Bellingham will finally be presented to the club’s fans.

But despite the success of Operation Bellingham, everyone at Madrid agrees that, in the future, with the continuing rise of state-run clubs, the financial strength of the Premier League and inflation in the transfer market, it will be more difficult for them to compete and complete these kinds of deals.

Paradoxically, at the same time, they know that if they have the best players, it will be easier to convince future stars to sign, even if they are offered more money elsewhere.

Madrid will certainly be up for the challenge.

(Top photo: David Ramos/Julian Finney/Getty Images. Visual design: Samuel Richardson)



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