The Player’s Tribune has published a series of first person life stories of footballers competing in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. One of the more compelling is that of ROMELU LUKAKU, the outstanding Belgian striker. Something he says struck a chord, reminiscent of the Canadian media’s attitude towards world class sprinter Ben Johnson in the 1980s. When things were going well for him, we read articles calling him Ben Johnson, the Canadian champion. After he had been incriminated with steroids, they called him Ben Johnson, the immigrant from Jamaica.
My father had been a pro footballer, but he was at the end of his career and the money was all gone. The first thing to go was the cable TV. No more football. No more Match of the Day. No signal.
Then I’d come home at night and the lights would be shut off. No electricity for two, three weeks at a time.
Then I’d want to take a bath, and there would be no hot water. My mum would heat up a kettle on the stove, and I’d stand in the shower splashing the warm water on top of my head with a cup.
There were even times when my mum had to “borrow” bread from the bakery down the street. The bakers knew me and my little brother, so they’d let her take a loaf of bread on Monday and pay them back on Friday.
I knew we were struggling. But when she was mixing in water with the milk, I realized it was over, you know what I mean? This was our life.
I didn’t say a word. I didn’t want her to stress. I just ate my lunch. But 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.
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.
I kept my promise to myself for a while. But then some days I’d come home from school and find my mum crying. So I finally told her one day, “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.”
I was six.
I asked my father, “When can you start playing professional football?”
He said, “Sixteen.”
I said, “O.K., sixteen then.”
It was going to happen. Period.
Let me tell you something — every game I ever played was a Final. When I played in the park, it was a Final. When I played during break in kindergarten, it was a Final. I’m dead-ass serious. I used to try to tear the cover off the ball every time I shot it. Full power. We weren’t hitting R1, bro. No finesse shot. I didn’t have the new FIFA. I didn’t have a Playstation. I wasn’t playing around. I was trying to kill you.
When I started growing taller, some of the teachers and the parents would be stressing me. I’ll never forget the first time I heard one of the adults say, “Hey, how old are you? What year were you born?”
I’m like, What? Are you serious?
When I was 11 years old, I was playing for the Lièrse youth team, and one of the parents from the other team literally tried to stop me from going on the pitch. He was like, “How old is this kid? Where is his I.D.? Where is he from?”
I thought, Where am I from? What? I was born in Antwerp. I’m from Belgium.
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 wanted to be the best footballer in Belgian history. That was my goal. Not good. Not great. The best. I played with so much anger, because of a lot of things … because of the rats running around in our apartment … because I couldn’t watch the Champions League … because of how the other parents used to look at me.
I was on a mission.
When I was 12, I scored 76 goals in 34 games.
I scored them all wearing my dad’s shoes. Once our feet got to be the same size, we used to share.
One day I called up my grandfather — my mum’s dad. He was one of the most important people in my life. He was my connection back to Congo, where my mum and dad are from. So I was on the phone with him one day, and I said, “Yeah, I’m doing really well. I scored 76 goals, and we won the league. The big teams are noticing me.”
And usually, he always wanted to hear about my football. But this time it was strange. He said, “Yeah, Rom. Yeah, that’s great. But can you do me a favor?”
I said, “Yeah, what is it?”
He said, “Can you look after my daughter, please?”
I remember being so confused. Like, what’s Grandad on about?
I said, “Mum? Yeah, we’re cool. We’re O.K.”
He said, “No, promise me. Can you promise me? Just look after my daughter. Just look after her for me, O.K.?”
I said, “Yeah, Granddad. I got it. I promise you.”
Five days later he passed away. And then I understood what he really meant.
It makes me so sad to think about, because I just wish that he could have lived another four years to see me play for Anderlecht. To see that I kept my promise, you know? To see that everything was going to be O.K.
I told my mum that I would make it at 16.
I was late by 11 days.
May 24, 2009.
The playoff final. Anderlecht vs. Standard Liège.
John Thys/AFP/Getty Images
That was the craziest day of my life. But we have to back up for a minute. Because at the start of the season, I was barely playing for the Anderlecht U-19s. The coach had me coming off the bench. I’m like, “How the hell am I going to sign a pro contract on my 16th birthday if I’m still on the bench for the U-19s?”
So I made a bet with our coach.
I told him, “I’ll guarantee you something. If you actually play me, I’m going to score 25 goals by December.”
He laughed. He literally laughed at me.
I said, “Let’s make a bet then.”
He said, “O.K., but if you don’t score 25 by December, you’re going to the bench.”
I said, “Fine, but if I win, you’re going to clean all the minivans that take the players home from training.”
He said, “O.K., it’s a deal.”
I said, “And one more thing. You have to make pancakes for us every day.”
He said, “O.K., fine.”
That was the dumbest bet that man ever made.
I had 25 by November. We were eating pancakes before Christmas, bro.
Let that be a lesson. You don’t play around with a boy who’s hungry!
I signed my pro contract with Anderlecht on my birthday, May 13. Went straight out and bought the new FIFA and a cable package. It was already the end of the season, so I was at home chilling. But the Belgian league was crazy that year, because Anderlecht and Standard Liege had finished tied on points. So there was a two-leg playoff to decide the title.
During the first leg, I’m at home watching on TV like a fan.
Then the day before the second leg, I get a phone call from the coach of the reserves.
“Hello, Rom. What are you doing?”
“About to go play football in the park.”
“No, no, no, no, no. Pack your bags. Right now.”
“What? What did I do?”
“No, no, no. You need to get to the stadium right now. The first team wants you now.”
“Yo …. What?! Me?!”
“Yeah, you. Come now.”
I literally sprinted into my dad’s bedroom and was like, “Yo! Get your ass up right now! We gotta go, man!”
He’s like, “Huh? What? Go where?”
I’m like, “ANDERLECHT, MAN.”
I’ll never forget, I showed up to the stadium, and I like pretty much ran into the dressing room and the kitman said, “O.K., kid, what number do you want?”
And I said, “Give me number 10.”
The kitman said, “O.K., kid, what number do you want?” And I said, “Give me number 10.”Hahahaha! I don’t know. I was too young to be scared I guess.
He was like, “Academy players have to take 30 and above.”
I said, “O.K., well, three plus six equals nine, and that’s a cool number, so give me 36.”
That night at the hotel, the senior players made me sing a song for them at dinner. I can’t even remember what I picked. My head was spinning.
The next morning, my friend literally knocked on the door of my house to see if I wanted to play football and my mum was like, “He’s out playing.”
My friend said, “Playing where?”
She said, “The final.”
We got off the bus at the stadium, and every single player walked in wearing a cool suit. Except me. I came off the bus wearing a terrible tracksuit, and all the TV cameras were right in my face. The walk to the locker room was like 300 meters. Maybe a three-minute walk. As soon as I put my foot in the locker room, my phone starts blowing up. Everybody had seen me on TV. I had 25 messages in three minutes. My friends were going crazy.
“Bro?! WHY ARE YOU AT THE GAME?!”
“Rom, what is happening? WHY ARE YOU ON TV?”
The only person I texted back was my best friend. I said, “Bro, I don’t know if I’m gonna play. I don’t know what’s going on. But just keep watching the TV.”
In the 63rd minute, the manager subbed me on.
I ran out onto the field for Anderlecht at 16 years and 11 days old.
We lost the final that day, but I was already in heaven. I made good on my promise to my mother and to my grandad. That was the moment I knew we were gonna be O.K.
Sam Robles/The Players’ Tribune
The next season, I was still finishing up my last year of high school and playing in the Europa League at the same time. I used to have to take a big bag to school so I could catch a flight in the afternoon. We won the league by a mile, and I finished second for African Player of the Year. It was just … crazy.
I actually expected all that to happen, but maybe not so fast. All of sudden, the media was building me up, and putting all these expectations on me. Especially with the national team. For whatever reason, I just wasn’t playing well for Belgium. It wasn’t working out.
But, yo — come on. I was 17! 18! 19!
When things were going well, I was reading newspapers articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker.
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.
We’re all Belgian. That’s what makes this country cool, right?
I don’t know why some people in my own country want to see me fail. I really don’t. When I went to Chelsea and I wasn’t playing, I heard them laughing at me. When I got loaned out to West Brom, I heard them laughing at me.
But it’s cool. Those people weren’t with me when we were pouring water in our cereal. If you weren’t with me when I had nothing, then you can’t really understand me.
You know what’s funny? I missed 10 years of Champions League football when I was a kid. We never could afford it. I would come into school and all the kids would be talking about the final, and I’d have no idea what happened. I remember back in 2002, when Madrid played Leverkusen, everybody was like, “The volley! Oh my God, the volley!”
I had to pretend like I knew what they were talking about.
Two weeks later, we were sitting in computer class, and one of my friends downloaded the video off the Internet, and I finally saw Zidane smash it into the top corner with his left.
That summer, I went over to his house so I could watch Ronaldo Fenomeno in the World Cup Final. Everything else from that tournament is just a story I heard from the kids at school.
Ha! I remember I had holes in my shoes in 2002. Big holes.
Twelve years later, I was playing in the World Cup.
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.
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports
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 setup, though?”
He’s like, “Don’t be silly. Yes, of course.”
That’s the coolest thing in the world, to me.
I just really, really wish my grandad was around to witness this.
I’m not talking about the Premier League.
Not Manchester United.
Not the Champions League.
Not the World Cups.
That’s not what I mean. I just wish he was around to see the life we have now. I wish I could have one more phone call with him, and I could let him know …
“See? I told you. Your daughter is OK. No more rats in the apartment. No more sleeping on the floor. No more stress. We’re good now. We’re good …
… They don’t have to check the I.D. any more. They know our name.”