Romelu Lukaku entered the World Cup on the back of a streak that saw him score 13 goals in nine games for Belgium. Already the country’s all-time top scorer, with an average of 0.52 goals per game, the 25-year-old couldn’t have been in much better form.
He started his campaign on Monday night in Belgium’s 3-0 win against Panama, scoring his country’s second and third goals, taking his tally to 38.
Lukaku enjoyed a decent debut campaign for Manchester United, which was cut short with injury, which saw him score 27 goals in all competitions. This is his best return since he started playing professional football, and the fourth season in a row when he scored 20+ goals.
The Belgian striker has been largely well supported at club level, despite enduring some criticism, but has expressed his unhappiness with how he has been received by his country’s fans.
After scoring twice against Saudi Arabia back in March, he received a standing ovation from the Belgium supporters, although this wasn’t enough for him to sweep their previous lack of appreciation under the carpet.
“A first applause after nine years,” he said. “Has everything been forgotten and forgiven between me and the public? As far as I am concerned, not yet. One applause in nine years, then it is not forgotten and forgiven.”
Ahead of the Panama game, Lukaku spoke for The Players’ Tribune in greater detail, hinting at the racism that has played a part in the reception he’s received in Belgium.
“When things were going well, I was reading newspapers articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker,” he revealed. “When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent. If you don’t like the way I play, that’s fine. But I was born here. I grew up in Antwerp, and Liège and Brussels. I dreamed of playing for Anderlecht.”
Lukaku’s parents are Congolese and moved to Belgium before Romelu was born. His father’s international career was spent playing for Zaire but he represented Belgian side FC Boom after moving to the country when he was 23, three years before his son was born.
Racism has plagued Lukaku’s career since he was a young player in Belgium. Because of his strength and size, parents of the other boys playing alongside him claimed he had lied about his age.
“He had a lot of people talking s**t about him because he was so fast and scored so many goals,” childhood friend Vinne Frans revealed. “Parents would say he was older than he was. I think it was a bit of racism.”
In the years since, Lukaku’s game has been dismissed to solely being about his strength and speed. Pundits and journalists claimed he was unintelligent. While it’s impossible to ignore the physical advantage that Lukaku has over many of his opponents, to reduce him to just his strength is disingenuous. Aside from his goals, he bagged more assists than any of the strikers with more goals than him this season, including Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane.
Yet after the Belgian signed for United, European football journalist Mina Rzouki told BBC 5 Live: “I would pay £20m or £30m more if I had to and I would bring in Morata. That is because I would always prefer an intelligent player in my team. Even if he doesn’t score as many goals, even if he doesn’t do whatever he needs to.”
Out of interest, Morata finished the season with 12 fewer goals than Lukaku.
Following Lukaku’s fourth goal in three games at the beginning of the season for United, Alan Pardew claimed the striker didn’t have the “cleverness“ that Ibrahimovic, Van Nistelrooy and Teddy Sherigham had.
Paul Merson claimed the striker made the right move in joining United instead of Chelsea, as he’s “not bright enough to play with Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas.”
Where are these assumptions coming from?
Lukaku speaks six languages and his mother wouldn’t let him leave for Chelsea when they first approached him at 14, instead insisting that he stayed in Belgium until he had finished his education.
When Roberto Martinez, now his national team manager, met him at Everton as a 20-year-old, he was very impressed with the player’s intelligence.
“The first time I spoke with him I realised that he was not a typical centre forward, power whatever,” he said. “He is a thinker. He is a really knowledgeable man and is someone who looks at games in a very different way.”
When he signed aged 24 he had scored more goals than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo had at the same age. To score so many goals when he has spent much of his Premier League career at mid-table clubs speaks volumes of his ability. When you consider that less than 10 of his goals during his time in England have been from the penalty spot, his tally is all the more impressive.
Yet he seems to be unanimously underappreciated, for Belgium more than anywhere, despite his great record.
Lukaku has scored eight more goals than anyone who has ever played for Belgium before. The eight players beneath him have all retired while Eden Hazard, ranked 10th, is 16 goals short of Lukaku. He’s going to be their top scorer for some time yet, particularly when you consider how many years he’s got ahead of him.
“I don’t know why some people in my own country want to see me fail. I really don’t,” he said before Monday’s game. Maybe after this World Cup they will realise what a talent they have in their national team.