I sometimes wonder how tough life must be for a Premier League footballer. The ball flies past before you know it is coming; you must adapt to overcome the ever-growing number of convoluted traps laid for them, sprung by tactical minds informed with endless data. Intrusive cameras and microphones are laid out in a mesh by Rolex-wearing puppeteers. The rabid, billions-strong fanbase which fuels it all. No player in the last decade – a decade in which these forces seem to have multiplied exponentially – has overcome their obstacles quite like Romelu Lukaku. On his return to the Premier League, and to the club which plucked the Belgian League’s top scorer from the safety of his home country, plunging him into the lion’s den within a firestorm that is Abramovich’s Chelsea and the world’s most visible sports competition, the endless debates that follow him are of a radically different tone to those which fed the opinion pieces and podcasts surrounding his previous spell.
Watching Romelu at West Brom, we bore witness to a gathering force that seemed to grow deadlier each week: a player whose movements were too precise, his body shapes too opaque, and a desire to score too relentless for us not to recognise a man destined to ruin defenders’ lives at the highest echelons of football. For the British press, and a good number of its football fans that were finding a new and more impactful voice on social media, however, there was a problem. Romelu is a dark-skinned man. For the most part in this country, this does not entail an openly racist mire of criticism, but instead constitutes a dark undercurrent; a deep hole in the dirt filled with gnashing teeth ravenous for a sign of weakness, an opportunity to expose a flaw in someone who to them is simply another feature of their entertainment product. He is a feature they ridicule more heavily than others because they are afraid of him. They sing songs about the length of his penis and describe his pace and power with bestial undertones because they cannot cope with the self-assured and imperturbable aura he projects, gliding past our finest defenders and skipping around our media’s attempts to entangle him in their web of games. They joke of satanic voodoo rituals because they cannot handle how comfortable he is in ‘their’ space, how astutely he manoeuvres the pitfalls of gluttonous super-agents and club environments seeking to stifle, rather than stoke his supreme talent.
Romelu chose Roc Nation over Mino Raiola, and Serie A over the Premier League where other players may have been pushed towards the glitzy yet hollow trappings that came with what he left behind. Romelu left a toxic Old Trafford, choosing Inter in favour of a guaranteed Scudetto at Juventus because, “Inter is not for everyone”. This is the devotion to his craft and obsession with constant challenge that informs his career-decisions. He must feel valued because he both knows his worth, and knows what it’s like to play for a club where he isn’t valued. Rather than a guaranteed title win alongside superstars, he chose a rapidly developing project of which he was to be both the catalyst and the heart. At San Siro the thorny vines which had been straining to hold him back withered and fell away, Romelu’s fire accelerated with the gasoline of a hungry team, and with the concentrated ferocity of an Antonio Conte project that knew exactly the figurehead it had acquired, and with which it would envelop and incinerate Juve’s stranglehold on the league that had begun a decade earlier, as Lukaku refused to accept the 2012 Champions League trophy which he felt his participation (or lack of) did not merit.
At Inter, Lukaku became what he had always been. For two full seasons, Italy was home to the most complete striker in the world, and this world that had for so long been attempting to degrade and denounce him was forced to reckon with something they had always tried to deny. Amidst viral compilations of ‘donkey-like’ touches, monkey chants from Italian stands, and the comment sections of ‘football banter’ pages on Instagram, Lukaku has always known the player he is, and where he should be. It has taken a long time for the media and fan consensus around the world, but particularly in the UK, to catch up with his personal vision, and this is because Romelu has always been two steps ahead of them. In this modern game, where your profile, personality, and image are as important as your performance, Lukaku has always been at home and at ease with himself, safe in the knowledge of his own ability, nurtured by a close circle of family and advisors who empower his independent decision-making. He cycles between his seven languages with ease in a post-match interview where he casually explains a Man of the Match performance. He adapts to a modern tactical norm wherein the ‘big man up front’ acts both as the creator and executor of an attack, doing so with an intelligence and grace that sets him apart even from the game’s most lauded superstars.
Although he comes back to the club which gave him his start in Europe’s elite, this does not feel like the homecoming of a club hero. Familiar surroundings will provide comfort and ease of transition, yet these are not benefits that Lukaku requires – just happy coincidences. One feels that, returning to the UK as the world’s best striker into a Champions League winning and brilliantly coached project, Romelu is here to humiliate his past detractors with a knowing chuckle, becoming the focal point of a title charge with a presence and capability they never would have imagined, but that he had felt in himself as the six-year-old who promised his Mother he would become a professional footballer to provide for his struggling family.
Oh yes, the debates are different now. Now they debate whether he could win a Balon D’Or, how many goals he could score to lead Chelsea to the title, and whether there are any defenders who can actually stop him. There seems something inevitable in Romelu’s return, and even when catching the highlights of his latest goals in Italy these past two years, one sensed an air of unfinished business about him; that he was biding his time for the moment he could come back to the Premier League and chase silverware as a leading club’s franchise player, just as he had promised in his Everton and early United performances. That time is now, and this moment is his moment. As a Liverpool fan, I’m scared, but as a football fan – I can’t fucking wait.