American defender George Bello ‘starstruck’ in Bundesliga

BERLIN (AP) — American defender George Bello says he is “starstruck” to be facing players like Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski after securing a move to Bundesliga club Arminia Bielefeld.

After joining Bielefeld from Major League Soccer’s Atlanta in January, the 20-year-old Bello made his first start in a 1-0 loss at Borussia Dortmund on Saturday, playing the full game after previously making four substitute appearances for the German team.

The left-back faced his compatriot and friend Gio Reyna as well as Norwegian star Haaland when they came on for the last half hour for Dortmund.

Five days later, Bello was still clearly buzzing from the game.

“I’m just blessed to be here because, I mean, I play with these guys on FIFA and stuff and I’m playing Bundesliga, so it’s crazy. I’m really happy,” Bello told journalists in an online call on Thursday.

Despite receiving offers from other clubs in other leagues, Bello said Bielefeld coach Frank Kramer played a key role in persuading him that the oft-overlooked Germany city, located northeast of Dortmund, was the best place to further his career.

“He made me feel like he really cared about me, which is really important, and I was coming to a team that was going to accept me and I could be myself,” Bello said. “Him just giving me that kind of summary, basically of the club, made me feel like, yeah, that’s the right place I need to be to grow as a player and a person as well. I think I made the right decision.”

Bielefeld was promoted as second-division champion in 2020. It was 14th in the 18-team Bundesliga, just two points above the relegation zone, when Bello joined on the last day of the transfer window.

It’s in the same position now after three consecutive defeats. Eight rounds of the season remain. Next up on Saturday is what is sure to be a tough game against Mainz, another team beset by coronavirus infections.

“It’s a massive game for sure,” Bello said. “We need every point we can get and obviously we have one goal in mind and that’s to win.”

Bello was one of three Americans to switch to the Bundesliga during the winter transfer window along with Ricardo Pepi to Augsburg and Kevin Paredes to Wolfsburg, continuing what has become a well-worn path for American players taking their first steps in one of Europe’s major five leagues.

“Just seeing how far Americans have come in this top league is really cool to see,” Bello said, citing the experiences of compatriots like Reyna and Borussia Mönchengladbach defender Joe Scally.

Born in Abuja, Nigeria in 2002, Bello’s family moved to suburban Atlanta when he was 1. He joined Atlanta’s academy in 2016, made his MLS debut in 2018, and soon after scored his first goal against New England Revolution. He made his breakthrough in 2020 by playing 20 games, all but one as a starter, then followed up with 29 games in 2021.

Bello represented the United States at youth level, playing alongside Reyna since the under-15s, before making his senior debut last year in a friendly against Trinidad and Tobago.

Bello, like any international player, wants to be at the World Cup in Qatar later this year, but he’s staying humble about his chances of getting there.

“My goal is to just to keep improving myself and just trying to be consistent here. And if I do that, I feel like everything will work out the way it’s going to work out,” said Bello, adding that the first goal is to remain injury-free. “Nothing is given to you. Nothing is handed to you. I have to work hard to get that spot on a World Cup roster, and so is everyone else. So it’s going to be fun. This is going to be a fun year. And like I said, everyone’s excited for it.”

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Ciarán Fahey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfaheyAP

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