‘Prodigy’, ‘genius’, ‘goal machine’, and ‘the next Didier Drogba’: Romelu Lukaku has been described in all of these glowing terms in Belgium, the country in which the young striker was born in 1993. A first-team performer and the Jupiler Pro League’s top goalscorer by 16, the powerfully built attacker has never been one to keep a low profile.
“Lukaku can stay at Anderlecht until he’s an old man if he wants to,” joked club president Roger Vanden Stock back in 2011, after the marksman of Congolese descent had scored 41 goals in 98 matches for Les Mauves et Blancs.
“Anderlecht, are my club. I’d dreamed about playing for them ever since I first started kicking a ball around. When I signed for them, I was the happiest guy in the world. The club gave me everything – they made me into the player I am today,” explained Lukaku in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
The name ‘Lukaku’ is one that is familiar to Belgian fans of all ages, and not just because of Romelu’s growing reputation. His brother Jordan plays at left-back for Anderlecht, while his father Roger also spent several years plying his trade in the Belgian League, and even represented Zaire in qualifying matches for the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™.
Two years ago, Romelu Lukaku ensured that his name would gain even greater prominence by moving to the English Premier League to join Chelsea.
“I had the chance to come earlier, but my dad insisted that I finish school before considering a move outside Belgium,” he said. “I don’t regret having waited. It’s important to have qualifications. My public relations studies are a great help to me in the environment I work in. Football is also a business, remember. I speak six languages, which is always useful. And you just never know what can happen in this game – an injury can occur in the blink of an eye.”
From the Blues to the Baggies
The Belgian front man may have an imposing physique, but actually imposing himself at the age of 18 on a team with Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Daniel Sturridge at its disposal proved a difficult task. Erstwhile Chelsea manager André Villas Boas opted instead to use him as an impact substitute, a role to which he was not at all accustomed.
“But it was the right place to learn the ropes,” he said. “Players like Drogba and Anelka took me under their wing and showed me how things worked in the Premier League. And now I’m happy to be able to spread my own wings.”
Ariel Jacobs, who was responsible for bringing Lukaku into the Anderlecht senior side, had previously predicted as much: “At a big club, if he finds himself stuck on the bench, he’ll wither away. A 25-year-old might be able to put things into perspective, but not Romelu. He enjoys playing the game too much.”
After a first season at Stamford Bridge during which his playing time was severely limited, the powerful forward was therefore loaned out to West Bromwich Albion for match practice. “I had to put my reputation on the line, because I had a lot to prove. I’d been criticised a bit, and I wanted to respond in my own polite way – by performing strongly on the pitch,” he said.
Eight months, 14 goals and seven assists later, Lukaku has clearly achieved that goal. Spearheading the attack of a side used to battling against relegation, he and the West Brom team as a whole – comfortably ensconced in the top half of the table – have enjoyed an excellent season.
“Our league position has no doubt surprised a lot of people. It’s up to us to prove that we’re there on merit. We need to show everyone that we’ve got the ability to finish even higher,” he continued.
Red devils and golden opportunities
Much like his team, Lukaku possesses few obvious weaknesses and boasts an attractive style of play. He is aware, however, that he still has progress to make.
“I’m only 19. It goes without saying that I’ve still got a lot to learn. First and foremost, I need to keep my feet on the ground. I thank God every day for the opportunity to play in the Premier League. I know that not everyone gets this kind of chance, especially at my age,” he said.
“I can and I must improve every area of my game. Perfecting my skills is the only way I’m going to get better. Winning the FIFA Ballon d’Or is actually a dream of mine,” he added.
Attaining the precious golden trophy may become a reality one day if he can also put in high-quality international displays on a regular basis. It is certainly a good time to be representing Belgium, as Les Diables Rouges have recently recorded a fine series of results and performances. Unbeaten in the qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014, they currently sit proudly atop Group A.
“The players that make up the national team are performing at the top of their game at the moment,” said Lukaku. “They’re young and play for some of the best clubs in Europe. And it’s not going to end there, because the 93-94 generation will soon arrive on the scene. The future looks even brighter.”
With a player often spoken about in the same breath as Didier Drogba on board, it is likely that the future will indeed prove to be rosy for Belgium. Lukaku concludes by taking the flattering comparison in his stride: “Didier and I do have a similar style. I learnt a lot from him, and I’m delighted to have had the chance to rub shoulders with him for a year. But there's only one Didier Drogba, just like there's only one Romelu Lukaku.”