FIFA World Cup: After a roller coaster journey to reach the starry sky, the lights go out for Lukaku on the biggest stage

Romelu Lukaku is distraught, head buried in his palms, bowed before his hero Thierry Henry, looking gloomily into the distance at nothing in particular. A more terrible night for a striker in a major World Cup match cannot be remembered. Lukaku runs away from Henry, screams loudly and smashes the excavated glass with his right fist, stumbling away into the shadows. It was quite a journey for him to reach the starry sky before the lights went out in the desert.

When he was a kid, the lights literally went out at his house. For nights. One night he saw his mother playing with the milk in the kitchen; he saw her mixing water with the milk. Then he knew his family was broke. He didn’t say a word; just ate his lunch quietly because he didn’t want to stress her out. Soon unpaid electricity bills piled up and the house would often plunge into darkness. But that moment, and especially the expression on his mother as she was diluting the milk, stirred something in him. He decided that he would be a football player who would provide for his family. He was six.

“I swear to God, I made a promise to myself that day. It was like someone snapped their fingers and woke me up. I knew exactly what to do and what I was going to do. I couldn’t see my mother living like this. No no no. I can’t have that,” he once wrote on Players Tribune. One day he came home and saw his mother crying. He asks his father the age to become a professional football player; he is told 16. “I said, ‘OK, sixteen then.’ 11 days after turning 16, he played his professional game.

The ball wouldn’t just listen to him on what might be the worst night of his career. He would try almost every part of his body, but he couldn’t. His head; the header would fly over the vacant goal, even as a sense of shock slowly began to sink in. He tried with his right foot, the ball bounced off the post. He went with his thigh and the ball, instead of rolling into the empty net, would wobble out. He tried his calves, and the ball went the other way. There was a moment when he was bent on his knees, his eyes reflecting sheer horror at the nightmare, where Thierry Henry might well have dashed across from the dugout and hugged him.

Some days to remember, some days to forget.

Lukaku talks to Henry. He had made it to the national team. ‘Man, listen – when we were kids we couldn’t even afford to see Thierry Henry on Match of the Day! Now I learn from him every day with the national team. I’m standing next to the legend, in the flesh, and he’s telling me all about how to run into space like he used to. Thierry is perhaps the only man in the world who watches more football than I do. We debate about everything. We sit around and discuss German second division football. I’m like, ‘Thierry, have you seen the Fortuna Düsseldorf lineup?’ He’s like, ‘Don’t be silly. Yes of course.’ That to me is the coolest thing in the world.”

Now he presented his most vulnerable moment to his hero, catching the two in public in a private moment.

In 2018, just before the World Cup in Russia, he wrote for the Tribune: “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 drama. People can say whatever they want about our team, and about me.”

They have been talking for the past 10 days. About the split in the team, about him, mocking memes, caustic tweets. On Thursday, The Guardian reported that Lukaku had to step in as a peacemaker in the team to stop the warring factions. Now he’s broken, his coach has quit, a team in disarray, fans sobbing in the stands – a World Cup misery is over.

In some ways, Lukakus’ misery was over when the boy became a man at the age of 6. At the age of six. Imagine. Then he said to her, “Mom, it’s going to change. You’ll see it. I’m going to play football at Anderlecht, and soon it will happen. We’ll be good. You don’t have to worry anymore.”

During his growing years he has had to face the wrath of the world. Physically huge, he was viewed with suspicion by the parents of his age group boys in the football teams.

“‘Hey how old are you? What year were you born?’ I’m like, what? Are you serious? My dad wasn’t there because he didn’t have a car to drive to my away games. I was all alone and had to fend for myself. I went to get my ID out of my bag and left it to all the parents, and they passed it around to inspect it, and I remember the blood just coursing through me… and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to kill your son even more now’ I wanted to kill him already , but now I’m going to destroy him. You’re going to drive the boy home crying. I thought: where am I from? What? I was born in Antwerp. I’m from Belgium.”

When he turned professional, on his good days, playing for Belgium, he was Belgium’s striker, for the media. On bad days it was a different story.

“When things didn’t go well, they called me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent. If you don’t like my way of playing, that’s fine. But I was born here. I grew up in Antwerp, Liège and Brussels. I dreamed of playing for Anderlecht. I dreamed of being Vincent Kompany. I start a sentence in French and finish it in Dutch, adding some Spanish, Portuguese or Lingala, depending on which neighborhood we live in.

“I am Belgian. We are all Belgians. That’s what makes this country cool, right? But it’s cool. Those people weren’t with me when we poured water through our cornflakes,” he wrote in the players’ gallery. “If you weren’t with me when I had nothing, then you can’t really understand me.”

Nor can the world understand what a player like him is going through in professional lows as he plummeted Thursday night. He was presented with an opportunity, everywhere, in the right place at the right time, the skill of a striker who was praised and envied in the professional world, but he just couldn’t finish it.

“People in football like to talk about mental strength. Well, I’m the strongest guy you’ll ever meet. Because I remember sitting in the dark with my brother and my mother, saying our prayers and thinking, believing, knowing … it’s going to happen It happened, he played all over the world for different teams, but during one of the greatest phases of his life, his art let him down.

A nice story is told about Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, told by coach Signorini. The story, as reported by Bleacher Report, goes that in 2009, when Messi was having problems with his free kicks, and was about to sulk after a particularly bad training session, Maradona called him.

“Maradona told Messi,” says Signorini. “Listen, when you hit the ball, don’t pull your foot back so quickly, because she won’t understand what you want to do.”

Lukaku tried with his foot, head, thighs, legs, chest – but she just didn’t understand what he wanted to do.

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