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George Bello: Atlanta United’s 16-year-old wonderkid on the brink of a breakthrough

Atlanta United’s enigmatic homegrown is one with the highest ceiling.

Atlanta United

Two years ago, George Bello was showing out on the training field—clearly standing out among his peers with his delicate touch, darting movements and pinpoint passes. Except Bello wasn’t training on the fields of his youth academy club, the Alpharetta Ambush, nor his hometown of Douglasville.

No, he was thousands of miles away trialing at Premier League club Everton and Serie A’s Genoa.

“Within an hour of seeing him, they both wanted to sign him. He was the best player on the pitch,” said Bello’s former coach and mentor David Eristavi, recalling how he watched with bemusement from the sidelines. “They couldn’t believe it. ‘Who is this kid?’”

The anecdote is an eye-opening reminder of just how talented Atlanta United’s homegrown starlet really is. But despite succeeding at literally every level and now participating as a member of the first team, Bello is still somwhat of an enigma. Perhaps that’s the way Bello would prefer it, keeping to his low-key and humble demeanor. But the truth is that Bello’s potential is as high as anyone at the club, homegrown or not. This is his story.

The formative years

Bello has been playing the sport as long as he can remember. Having moved to the United States from his birth country of Nigeria when he was one year old, Bello credits his father for instilling his passion for the game. Growing up in Douglasville, Bello quickly moved to play in a more competitive environment with Chelsea FC’s development partner at Southern Soccer Academy in Cobb County. It was there where Eristavi first laid eyes on Bello and knew he had to at least extend an invitation for him to play in his own team’s upcoming tournament.

“George was playing U9 and once I got permission from his coach, I asked if he’d come play in a tournament with my U12 team,” explained Eristavi, 60, who played professionally for 14 years, coached pro teams for nine more before spending the last 22 years in elite youth coaching. “I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I could see with his first touch and his vision—right away I knew he had the potential to play bigger soccer… I’ve never had a player like George. He’s a very special boy.”

Bello played well in Eristavi’s team in that tournament, and there was no going back to SSA. He spent the next five years playing with Eristavi’s Alpharetta Ambush, logging hundreds of hours in the car as his parents carpooled him back and forth from Douglasville. It was worth it for Bello though. Playing with the Ambush, Bello teamed up with another future Atlanta United Academy teammate Zyen Jones—now at Bundesliga club Schalke—despite playing up by two age groups.

Bello didn’t just accept the challenge, he embraced the competition—growing as a player, winning trophies and national club competitions. It wasn’t long before Bello drew interest from the United States Development Academy and, eventually, Atlanta United’s Academy through its current director Tony Annan.

”By the time I got to Alpharetta Ambush, I knew [Atlanta United] was gonna start up, which was great because I always was wondering why there wasn’t a team in Georgia,” Bello explained. “Coach Tony [Annan] has known me for a while and had wanted me to come to Georgia United. But when he when he went to Atlanta United, he reached out to me again and wanted me to come, so we took that offer.”

Despite the loss of a quality player such as Bello, Eristavi was happy to see him move on to a bigger opportunity with Atlanta United. It’s all he ever wants from his players: to help them them develop from a raw talent to a more seasoned, versatile player that can move on to the next stage, wherever that may be. For some kids, it’s another development team, for some it’s college. But for the rare few like Bello (and Jones), Eristavi was happy to see them move to the next stage of their development.

“George needed to play for an MLS club,” said Eristavi. “It was the best thing for his future—not playing with the Ambush.”

Becoming a professional

At the tender age of 15 last May, Bello found himself standing in the middle of a soccer field with more than 45,000 people in the stands applauding him. Except this time it wasn’t for a shot or a tackle. Bello, alongside Atlanta United teammates Lagos Kunga and Patrick Okonkwo, were presented at Bobby Dodd Stadium as Atlanta United’s newest homegrown contingent, effective Jan. 1, 2018. Even at his extremely young age, Atlanta United brass knew they needed to lock down a talent like Bello to a professional contract.

No more than a couple month later, Bello helped the Atlanta United Academy to win the club’s first trophy—the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy U16 national championship—alongside his Ambush teammate Zyen Jones and two other notable Atlanta United homegrowns in Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin. That week, Bello was awarded by the USDA as U16 player of the year despite still being on the low end of the age range at just 15.

2017 effectively marked the finale of Bello’s career as a youth player. This year, he’s on a professional contract earning wages, an entirely different challenge. At just 16 years old, he’s the youngest, and therefore most physically disadvantaged, player at the club. He’s spent the year learning how to play against grown men in USL, some of which are twice his age.

“It’s a great place to develop yourself. Just because it’s called ‘the second team’ doesn’t mean it’s not a place that can help you get better as a player,” says Bello, referring to Atlanta’s USL club named Atlanta United 2. “It’s still competitive and intense, but it’s a place to really show what you can do. [ATLUTD 2 Head Coach] Scott [Donnelly] is a great coach and he’s taught me a lot when I’ve worked with him.”

Bello’s time with the USL team has been his best opportunity to show fans the kind of player he is, even if those moments have been sporadic due to a chronic hip injury that has held him out for some extended periods. Thankfully, he was able to show his talent immediately upon the start of the season and created a goal in Atlanta United 2’s second competitive match.

Remember, Bello is a left back.

“We know [his attacking talent] is there, so we’re not surprised,” Donnelly said following the match in late March. “He’s natural in that he sees the game very clearly, and when he sees a moment to go, he goes. That’s why he’s a huge prospect for the club, because he has the ability to play high up the field and also play in a defensive role. As I said after the game on Saturday, we have no hesitation to put him on the field and trust him for 90 minutes. He rewarded that faith with a good performance.”

It’s a good description of Bello. He himself admits he’s “of two minds” when it comes to his urge to contribute both to the attack and the defense from his left back position. While Eristavi is adamant that Bello is a natural central midfielder—not a fullback— Bello is enjoying focusing on learning the nuances of the position at this point.

”When I was around 10 and 11 years old I played striker,” said Bello. “Then when I got older I went to left wing, attacking mid, and then how I got to left back was at my first national team camp. They decided that would be a good position for me and I played well. I try to make myself as versatile as possible, but right now I really focus on that position so I can make myself better and improve. But I love attacking as well.”

Interestingly, Bello mentions David Alaba as a player he models his game after. The Bayern Munich left back is one of the most versatile players in the word, having played just about every position at one point or another for the German superclub outside the goalkeeper’s box. Bello points out Alaba’s versatility as a specific reason why he likes him so much. And like Alaba, Bello now finds himself on the edge of the first team at his one-and-only club at an incredibly early age.

On the brink of a breakthrough

Despite having played only for Atlanta United 2 so far this season, the truth is that Atlanta United Manager Tata Martino is clearly a fan of Bello. The teenager has been training extensively with the first team most of the season (when healthy), and just last week, Martino confirmed that Bello would finish the season in first team training—not with the 2s.

”Training with the first team is great. Practices are always intense—there’s no breaks,” said Bello. “So it’s just compete, compete, compete and try to show yourself as much as possible. I’ve learned that the pace of the game is just a different level than what the academy might be. It forces you to step your game up to another level.

“[Miguel and Josef] are both crazy players—insane. I’m just happy to be able to share the pitch with them! They are really competitive. They never joke around on the field. They’re very serious about it. So it’s great to be a part of it and grow with them.”

If there’s anything Bello loves, it’s competition. He is clearly unphased by any physical disadvantage he faces on the pitch. He’s competed against older, bigger, stronger kids—and now adults— at every level of his career. And he’s succeeded. But now Bello has to make an adjustment. For the first time in his soccer career, he’s not stepping into first team training as one of the best players on the pitch. This is all part of his development. But the flip side of that coin is that now Bello has teammates that can support him and help his game. Oh, and being coached by Tata Martino ain’t bad either.

Greg Garza is a great guy. I ask him a lot of questions and he gives me a bunch of tips. He’s funny. Darlington [Nagbe] is another guy I look up to who’s a great guy, and Julian [Gressel] as well. But the whole team is great and friendly. It’s like a big family, so you don’t ever feel left out. It’s a great environment,” said Bello. “This is my first time being coached by one of the greatest coaches of all time, so it’s really great to go out there and be taught the game. And just to be in his presence for him to see you play is a huge blessing. He’s a really good coach. You can ask him anything and he will explain things to you. He’s always there to answer any questions you have.”

Bello clearly has the talent to succeed. He’s shown it at every level, but the quality of his character, according to Eristavi, is what will make him a success.

“In the four or five years he played with me, he never criticized a teammate when they did something wrong. Never,” said Eristavi. “He always motivates. He always encourages. ‘Let’s go get it! Let’s do better!’”

Eristavi had a deal with his team. If the team won, Eristavi picks up the water bottles and cleans the bench area. If they lost, it was the team’s responsibility. But Bello was the only one, win or lose, picking up the empty bottles after every game.