Remade in Inter, Lukaku aims for Italy
There are a couple of recorded confessions by a teenage Romelu Lukaku – during his first stint with Chelsea – that say plenty about his character. After Chelsea won the FA Cup in 2012, Lukaku refused to celebrate with the trophy because he hadn’t really contributed to the win – with just one substitute appearance in the campaign. “When (Salomon) Kalou put the cup on my lap in the bus, I asked him to take it away immediately. I didn’t want to touch it,” Lukaku is quoted as saying. Same story a fortnight later too, after Chelsea won their maiden UEFA Champions League in Munich. When asked “why”, the Belgian told BBC: “It wasn’t me, but my team that won.”
Over the next many years, Lukaku would go on to cop massive amounts of criticism for all kinds of unwarranted stuff. Not just for his attitude and size (Gary Neville infamously called him “overweight and unprofessional”) but also over his race (Lukaku wrote in The Player’s Tribune about how, when things weren’t going well, he was always “the Belgian striker of Congolese descent”). But what ostensibly stung more than disparaging remarks was the fact that Lukaku had gone trophyless since leaving Anderlecht as a kid – despite playing for many great football clubs and a great country.
Until May this year, that is. Lukaku’s 24 goals in the Serie A (only Juventus’s Cristiano Ronaldo scored more) earned Inter Milan their first title in 11 years and was the Belgian’s first trophy as an adult. But the Scudetto did more than just end Lukaku’s title drought, it broke Juventus’s nine-season stranglehold on the league. A genuine challenger to the throne also ended up inspiring neighbours AC Milan and Atalanta to take aim at the giants as well (and both finished above Juventus), which only made the club scene in Italy eminently more exciting.
That revival of Italian club football has had a tremendous impact on the ongoing European Championship. Not only is Ronaldo still topping the Golden Boot race with 5 goals, but also out of the remaining eight countries, half have Serie A players as their leading goal-scorers (or joint leading scorer). Belgium (Inter’s Lukaku), Spain (Juventus’s Alvaro Morata), Denmark (Atalanta’s Joakim Maehle) and Italy of course, with all their tournament-scorers in Ciro Immobile (Lazio), Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo), Federico Chiesa (Juventus), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) and Matteo Pessina (Atalanta) playing at home. Excluding own-goals, players from Serie A have scored the maximum number of goals so far, 30 (forbes.com).
Atalanta alone can be a good measure of Serie A’s impact on Euro 2020, with five players from their ranks finding the back of the net for different countries. That is as many as Manchester City’s goalscorers in this tournament. Not bad then for a club that was in the second division of Italian football as recently as 2011.
But before a squad studded with players from resurrected Serie A clubs can fully revive the Azzurri they have to get past the best that Italian club football has to offer in Lukaku. He may cut a lone figure of greatness in a Belgian squad that could lose Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne to injuries in the quarter-final, but don’t underestimate Lukaku’s hunger – especially after the Scudetto whet his appetite.
“It was important for me to start winning trophies,” said Lukaku before Belgium’s first knockout match, against Portugal. “The Serie A title with Inter gave me motivation and now I also want to win with the Red Devils too.’’
With Red Devils Manchester United, Lukaku spent two excruciating and trophyless seasons of having his class questioned. But for Red Devils as in ‘Diables Rouges’, or Belgium, he is admittedly as good as it gets. Lukaku said so himself last week when he deadpanned: “Well, now I’m world-class too.”