FIFA World Cup: After a rollercoaster journey to reach the starry heights, lights go out for Lukaku on the biggest stage

Romelu Lukaku is distraught, head buried in his palms, bowed in front of his hero Thierry Henry, who looks glum-eyed into the distance at nothing in particular. A more dreadful night for a striker in a big World Cup game, one can’t recall. Lukaku moves away from Henry, screams loudly, and smashes the dug-out glass with his right fist, staggers away into the shadows. It was some journey for him to reach the starry heights before the lights went out in the desert.

Lights literally went out at his home when he was a kid. For nights. One evening, he spotted his mother fiddling with the milk in the kitchen; he saw her mixing water in with the milk. That’s when he knew that his family was broke. He didn’t say a word; just ate his lunch quietly as he didn’t want to stress her out. Soon, unpaid electricity bills piled up, and the house would often plunge into darkness. But that moment and particularly the expression on his mother when she was diluting the milk stirred something in him. He decided he would be a footballer who would take care of his family. He was six.

“I swear to God, 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. Nah, nah, nah. I couldn’t have that,” he once wrote on Players Tribune. One day he came home to see his mother crying. He asks his father the age to become a professional footballer; he is told 16. “I said, “’O.K., sixteen then’.” 11 days after he turned 16, he played his professional game.

The ball wouldn’t just listen to him on the possibly the worst night of his career. He would try with nearly all parts of his body, but it wouldn’t. His head; the header would sail over the untenanted goal, even as a sense of shock slowly started to settle on him. He tried with his right foot, the ball ricocheted off the post. He went with his thigh, and the ball instead of rolling into the empty net would wobble out. He tried with his calves, and the ball went in the opposite direction. There was this one moment where he stood hunched on his knees, his eyes reflecting sheer horror at the nightmare, where Thierry Henry could well have stormed across from the dug out and hugged him.

Some days to remember, some days to forget.

Lukaku is talking with Henry. He had made it to the national team. “Man, listen — when we were kids, we couldn’t even afford to watch Thierry Henry on Match of the Day! Now I’m learning from him every day with the national team. I’m standing with the legend, in the flesh, and he’s telling me all about how to run into space like he used to do. Thierry might be the only guy in the world who watches more football than me. We debate everything. We’re sitting around and having debates about German second division football. I’m like, ‘Thierry, have you seen the Fortuna Düsseldorf set-up, though?’ He’s like, ‘Don’t be silly. Yes, of course.’ That’s the coolest thing in the world, to me.”

Now, he was presenting his most vulnerable moment to his hero, the two caught in a private moment in public eye.

In 2018, just before Russia world cup he would write on for the Tribune, “Now I’m about to play in another World Cup, and you know what? I’m going to remember to have fun this time. Life is too short for the stress and the drama. People can say whatever they want about our team, and about me.”

For the last 10 days they have been talking. About the rift in the team, about him, mocking memes, caustic tweets. On Thursday, The Guardian reported that Lukaku had to step in as a peacemaker in the team to stop the warring factions. Now, he is broken, his coach has quit, a team in disarray, sobbing fans in the stands – a world cup of misery is over.

In some ways, the misery at Lukakus was over when the boy grew into a man at 6. At six. Imagine. That’s when he told her, “Mum, it’s gonna change. You’ll see. I’m going to play football for Anderlecht, and it’s going to happen soon. We’ll be good. You won’t have to worry anymore.”

Through his growing years, he has had to face the wrath of the world. Physically huge, he was looked at suspiciously by the parents of his age-group boys in the football teams.

“’Hey, how old are you? What year were you born?’ I’m like, What? Are you serious? My dad wasn’t there, because he didn’t have a car to drive to my away games. I was all alone, and I had to stand up for myself. I went and got my I.D. from my bag and showed it to all the parents, and they were passing it around inspecting it, and I remember the blood just rushing through me … and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m gonna kill your son even more now’. I was already going to kill him, but now I’m gonna destroy him. You’re gonna drive the boy home crying now. I thought, Where am I from? What? I was born in Antwerp. I’m from Belgium.”

When he turned professional, on his good days, playing for Belgium, he was the striker from Belgium, for the media. On bad days, it was a different story.

“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. I dreamed of being Vincent Kompany. I’ll start a sentence in French and finish it in Dutch, and I’ll throw in some Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala, depending on what neighborhood we’re in.

“I’m Belgian. We’re all Belgian. That’s what makes this country cool, right? But it’s cool. Those people weren’t with me when we were pouring water in our cereal,” he wrote in the players tribune. “If you weren’t with me when I had nothing, then you can’t really understand me.”

Neither can the world understand what a player like him goes through in professional lows as he plunged to the depths on Thursday night. He was there, everywhere, a chance presented – at the right place at the right time, a striker’s skill raved and envied in the professional world, but he just couldn’t finish it.

“People in football love to talk about mental strength. Well, I’m the strongest dude you’re ever going to meet. Because I remember sitting in the dark with my brother and my mom, saying our prayers, and thinking, believing, knowing … it’s going to happen.” It happened, he starred around the world for different teams, but at one of the biggest stages of his life, his art deserted him.

There is this lovely story told of Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, as narrated by the trainer Signorini. The story, as reported by Bleacher Report, goes that in 2009 when Messi was having troubles with his free kicks, and after one particularly bad training session, he was about to sulk away, Maradona called him over.

““Maradona told Messi,” Signorini says. ‘Listen, when you strike the ball, don’t take your foot back so quickly because she won’t understand what you want to do.”

Lukaku tried with his foot, head, thighs, legs, chest – but she just didn’t understand what he wanted to do.

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