zenduck.me: Pain and positivity the fuel for Romelu Lukakus journey to the top

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Ariël Jacobs remembers vividly the day he realised Romelu Lukaku was something very special. The striker, having scored an incredible 131 goals in 94 matches for Anderlecht’s youth team, had been called up to train with the first team despite still having to attend school and being a few weeks from his 16th birthday.

“I had the chance to have some in-depth discussions with him and it became clear that as well as scoring lots of goals, Romelu’s second major quality, and one I could feel immediately, was his positive mindset,” says Jacobs, a former defender who spent five years as Anderlecht’s manager.

“He would listen to everyone who could help him – be it coaches, staff or teammates – and try to learn. In my experience, you can have all the talent in the world but if you don’t have the correct mindset you will never succeed. With Romelu, it always felt like he was open-minded and willing to improve.”

Yet if Lukaku’s progression to becoming one of the world’s most accomplished strikers has seemed on the cards since he shot to fame as a teenager, his career path has been far from straightforward. After disappointing spells at Chelsea and Manchester United, in May the Internazionale player finally ended his long wait for a second league title – he won the Belgian league in 2010 – and has emerged as a key figure in the fight against racism in Italy. The 28-year-old is one of the leaders of Belgium’s golden generation as Roberto Martínez’s side face a date with destiny against the Azzurri in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals on Friday, but Jacobs says his former protege has needed a ruthless streak to make it to the top.

“It’s a difficult question where that came from,” he says. “Did he get that from his childhood in rather difficult conditions in which he grew up? From that moment, he started setting some goals and said: ‘I don’t want to go through such an experience again – I want to become a professional player at the top level because I want to do it for my parents and myself.’ I think it was a combination of that with a big dream to be one of the best players in the world from the very beginning.”

Romelu Lukaku celebrates after scoring for Anderlecht against Athletic Bilbao in a Europa League game in February 2010. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

As a child, Lukaku – whose first name is made up of the first letters of his father’s full name, Roger Menama Lukaku – idolised his dad, a striker who had moved to Belgium from Kinshasa to play for second division FC Boom in 1990. He went on to play for Zaire in the 1994 World Cup qualifiers, twice represented them at Africa Cup of Nations finals and had a season at the top-flight club KV Mechelen and another in Turkey with Genclerbirligi. By the time his five-year-old son joined the Antwerp youth side Rupel Boom, however, Lukaku senior was approaching retirement and struggling to put food on the table.

“He was at the end of his career and the money was all gone,” Lukaku wrote for the Players’ Tribune in 2018. “I knew we were struggling. But when [my mother] was mixing in water with the milk, I realised it was over, you know what I mean? This was our life. I made a promise to myself that day. It was like somebody snapped their fingers and woke me up. I knew exactly what I had to do, and what I was going to do. I couldn’t see my mother living like that.”

Snapped up by Lierse, Lukaku scored 76 goals in 34 games there at the age of 12 wearing his father’s old boots. He has revealed it was a conversation with his mother’s father in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that hardened his desire to succeed.

“He said: ‘Can you look after my daughter, please?’ I remember being so confused. Like, what’s Grandad on about? Five days later he passed away. And then I understood what he really meant. I just wish that he could have lived another four years to see me play for Anderlecht.”

Romelu Lukaku runs at the Portugal defence during the 1-0 last-16 win. Photograph: Kieran McManus/BPI/Shutterstock

By the time Jacobs encountered the child prodigy, Lukaku was being linked with a move to a top European club after breaking all goalscoring records for Anderlecht’s youth sides. Lukaku made his debut in a devastating defeat in the second leg of a title play-off against Standard Liège 11 days after he had turned 16, and repaid Jacobs’ faith by finishing the next season as the league’s top scorer as Anderlecht swept to the title.

“I thought I had to protect him by not allowing him to speak to the press and Romelu totally agreed,” recalls Jacobs. “I also spoke to his father about it because often they want to see pictures and articles about their sons and he agreed without any problem. It allowed him to develop in kind of a bubble.”

Anderlecht allowed Lukaku to face the media for the first time in February 2010, when he was asked how it felt to have been the subject of a reported £10m bid from Chelsea. “I’m a bit shocked,” he said. “I’ll leave all that to Papa.”

According to Jacobs, the decision to join Chelsea was “easy” because of Lukaku’s desire to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Didier Drogba, although dislodging the Ivory Coast striker proved more difficult than anticipated.

“I told him one time: ‘You’re going to a club where there is enormous competition so it might happen if there are no injuries,’ and he didn’t allow me to finish my sentence,” Jacobs says. “‘Me sitting in the stands? Impossible.’ I said: ‘Romelu, it can happen.’ Unfortunately that’s what happened.”

Romelu Lukaku

It was the first of many challenges he would face in England, although the motivation of proving Chelsea wrong ensured Lukaku retained his insatiable will to win. On loan at West Brom in 2012-13 – when he outscored every Chelsea player with 17 Premier League goals – he chastised himself in the tunnel after a 3-2 defeat at Reading, insisting that he wasn’t happy with his performance. “I am always hard on myself,” he said. “That’s the person I’ve always been. Every day is a new opportunity to improve.”

His opportunity at Manchester United, after four brilliant seasons at Everton that yielded 68 goals in 141 Premier League appearances, did not work out as planned. He rejected Antonio Conte’s offer of a return to Chelsea – Jacobs believes Lukaku wanted a “fresh start” – and admitted last week in an interview with Vogue magazine in Italy that he “lacked the inner strength to get hold of my teammates and take them further”.

Romelu Lukaku in action for Manchester United against Arsenal in January 2019. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“I wasn’t there when they needed me,” he said. “I didn’t have the strength to carry them on my shoulders. It just happened. Maybe I simply needed to go through that painful and sometimes mysterious experience to grow up and find myself here.”

Here, of course, is in Milan, where Lukaku is an idol to the black and blue half of the city having won the title. “It’s very important for him,” Jacobs says. “I think that winning some prizes – either individually or as part of a team – became kind of an obsession for him.”

Kristof Terreur, a Belgian journalist who covers English football for the Antwerp-based Het Laatste Nieuws, says: “He is coming into a dressing room full of players who have won titles and now he has won one too so his words are even more accepted.”

At the 2014 World Cup Lukaku dedicated his winning goal in extra time of the last-16 match against the USA to his father. But having since fallen out with the man who first inspired him after his parents divorced, it is now thanks to the support of his mother, Adolphine, and Conte, who quit as Inter manager in May, that his game has reached the next level.

Romelu Lukaku with his former manager at Inter, Antonio Conte, who got the best out of the striker there. Photograph: Daniele Mascolo/Reuters

“Conte is always angry at him and by being angry at each other they get the best out of each other,” says Terreur. “There are a few players in the Belgium squad who have also been coached by him who say that the way Lukaku speaks now reminds them a lot of Conte. So he has a lot of him in him now.”

Italy may fear the player who scored 24 goals last season in Serie A but Lukaku’s status as his country’s record goalscorer does not guarantee that those critics who used to describe him as “the Belgian striker of Congolese descent” have gone away.

“He is a hero for the moment because he is scoring goals,” Jacobs says. “But you have to be realistic and he knows that until very recently – and without any obvious reason – that he was not appreciated that much. Everyone is looking for reasons for that, including me. So in that way he is accepted, but if things are going badly, I think he will be one of the first to be criticised.”