Belgian internationals Marvin Ogunjimi, Nacer Chadli and Dries Mertens were sitting around and planning a summer trip to Miami. A youngster overheard them and asked if he could go along. “No way”, they said, “you’re not old enough.” The teenager in question was Romelu Lukaku and he’s 18 today.
Lukaku is the biggest thing to come out of Belgium since Stella Artois; and that’s not only because he measures 1m 90 and weighs in at 93 kilos. Lukaku made his debut for Anderlecht aged 16. In his first two seasons, he’s scored 31 goals in 61 matches. His form dipped after the winter break but he’s now back to his bustling best; he notched two more last night in the infamous Jupiler League playoffs.
Belgium’s history in the Congo is well documented but one of the good things to come out of that dark period is the number of first-class footballers with their roots in the old colony. At Anderlecht alone, Lukaku follows in the footsteps of Vincent Kompany and Anthony Vanden Borre, and there are more in the pipeline.
Lukaku’s exploits have made him a hot property, primarily among Premier League clubs. If you believe the press – or his agent – Lukaku is being courted by Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan and any other club that has roughly £20 million to spend. The agent in question, Christophe Henrotay, said Barcelona were also on the case but couldn’t afford him. Even Palermo were mentioned in dispatches; now that would be a surprise.
Enzo Scifo, the Belgian player who has probably had the biggest global impact prior to Lukaku, says the young striker should leave Anderlecht if he wants to progress. Scifo says he needs to be with better players, but not if it means sitting on the bench at Chelsea or Manchester City. Anderlecht turned down a bid of £17 million – said to be from Spurs – last summer and the club’s administrative manager Herman Van Holsbeeck says bidding should start at 30 million euros (£25 million). That’s a bit cheeky as it’s roughly the same amount as the club’s annual budget.
Interest in Lukaku is immense: he receives hundreds of requests for interviews and personal appearances every month, Anderlecht shirts with Lukaku’s name on the back account for 60% of shirt sales, a TV programme was aired showing Lukaku at school hanging out with classmates and he already has lucrative contracts with Adidas, Panini, Seat and chocolate makers Kinder Bueno.
Lukaku is a product of our time. Through Twitter and Facebook, if Lukaku has an extra croissant for breakfast, the world knows it before his second cup of coffee. Anderlecht are doing their best to protect the youngster – who’s still at school – as he’s the Belgian club’s insurance policy. Not only does the Brussels club want a new ground to increase profits, they need to build a new team after a disastrous transfer policy. If they get anything approaching £25 million, they will be very happy indeed.
Romelu’s father, Roger, came to Belgium to play professional football in the seventies. He had some success with Seraing and Germinal before an unhappy 12 months in Turkey with Gençlerbirliği. That experience has made Lukaku senior an excellent advisor and it’s the reason why Romelu will only leave Anderlecht when the time is right. Roger told Jose Mourinho that school was a priority when the ‘Special One’ gave the Lukaku household a call last summer. Since then, Lukaku Senior has said he’s backing off protecting his son a little as he’ll be at a bigger club one day and on his own.
On the pitch, Lukaku looks like a young Didier Drogba. He’s incredibly strong and doesn’t yet know the meaning of failure. He’ll improve, but nobody knows by how much. He had his first setback in January when he had to settle for second place, behind Mbark Boussoufa, in the election of Belgium’s 2010 “Golden Boot”. Last week, he won his first award, the Ebony Shoe, awarded for Belgium’s top player with African roots – Lukaku dedicated that award to his father who had been nominated in his playing days.
Vincent Kompany also won the Ebony Shoe before leaving for foreign shores. In his case though, he stayed in Belgium long enough to win Young Player of the Year, Players’ Player of the Year and Footballer of the Year (“le Soulier d’Or / Gouden Schoe”). He also took a two-year University course and finished second in the Tour de France. Well, most of that is true. Although Lukaku comes across as impressive on TV – no individual interviews at the moment – he’s not an academic and his father is unlikely to insist on more studies now that Lukaku is 18.
There are obvious similarities between the two players. Anderlecht missed the boat somewhat with Kompany; once rated at £18 million, he left for Hamburg for half that amount after a couple of injuries. Now he’s close to the top of the football world and worth more like the £25 million quoted for Lukaku. Anderlecht need to get this transfer right and despite Lukaku Senior’s misgivings, Romelu might be heading for the club with the deepest purse.
As for the Belgo-Congolese pipeline, the next one to arrive could be Ziguy Badibanga. Anderlecht defeated Ghent 4-1 on Wednesday with Lukaku scoring two and making one. He was aided and abetted by Badibanga, aged 19; the youngster – born in Brussels of Congolese parents – got a standing ovation when substituted just before the end.