He is a human being after all.
That was the gist of the reaction to Romelu Lukaku's piece for The Players’ Tribune. In a lengthy feature, the Belgian striker delves deep into a difficult upbringing, where food was scarce and poverty was stark.
The tales of sacrifice and grit are at odds with someone who has spent most of his career being characterised as ‘lazy’. The real story, wedged beneath the headlines of a manipulative press, is one of an intelligent athlete, on an endless quest for betterment.
Lukaku re-made himself at Everton. The Toffees hadn’t seen a striker like him since Gary Lineker in the 1980s, someone capable of deciding entire fixtures on a whim.
He had pace and power but also a predatory instinct, one that wasn’t always clear during a difficult spell at Chelsea. The Lukaku we see in Russia is the product of an intense evolution, a metamorphosis that shows no sign of stopping.
Student of the Game
“I feel a lot of people working in the media don’t know how much of a student of the game I am,” he said in an interview with Sky Sports last year.
“They don’t know that if we play on a Saturday, the first thing I do when I get home is watch the other games, watch the other leagues”.
In each of the past five seasons, Lukaku’s goal tally has increased. He finished with 27 in the last campaign, in a side that often sacrificed creativity in favour of dour rigidity.
The 25-year-old arrived in Russia in scintillating form, and he has continued in a similar fashion. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, Eden Hazard admitted calling him out of ‘hiding’ during the half-time interval against Panama, but his response has been brilliant.
Four goals have arrived between then and the final whistle against Tunisia five days later. He has shown a variety of finishes, from deft dinks and guided headers to nerveless, surgical placements. Every time he finds the ball, he finds himself in front of goal.
A stunning supporting cast
He finds the ball often, too. How could he not, with Dries Mertens and Eden Hazard as his supporting cast? England’s post-Panama smile will surely crumble when faced with his puncturing runs and knockout finishes.
The next stage looks kind too. Belgium will face one of Colombia, Japan, and Senegal, irrespective of the result against England in their final group game.
Despite the pre-tournament jeers and whispers, Roberto Martinez’s 3-4-2-1 is bringing out the best in his striker. Even if it wasn’t, Kevin De Bruyne is so scandalously consistent that any of the Red Devils' potential opponents will be saying their prayers.
The form of Lukaku’s competitors only serves to enhance his odds of lifting the trophy.
Harry Kane might have five strikes, but a hat-trick against Panama resulted from two penalties and a flukey deflected finish. England's captain is yet to show the mobility or swagger that has characterised Lukaku’s displays.
Diego Costa’s tally of three goals looks for more impressive than his actual performances, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi can only hold the weight of their nations for so long.
Denis Cheryshev, a surprise name near the top of the list, will shortly disappear as Russia burn up against Spain.
With La Roja as the honourable exception, none of the above-named nations can offer the quality supporting cast that's afforded to Lukaku. Also, most of Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ has arrived focussed and in form. For many, it is the last opportunity to impress on the international stage whilst still in their prime.
With 40 goals in 71 appearances, Lukaku is already his nation’s top goalscorer in history. By next month, he might just have another record to add to that list.
How many more goals do you think Lukaku can score at the World Cup? Let us know in the comments section below.