Chelsea’s best striker this season only featured in August for The Blues. While Fernando Torres, Demba Ba, and Samuel Eto’o had considerable ups and downs this season—playing in the swirling sharknado of media-fueled drama that is Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, Romelu Lukaku was loaned out to Everton on the last day of the summer transfer window. It turned out to be not only the best course of action for Lukaku’s development, but also one of the most important factors in Everton’s evolution to the Premier League’s top tier.
Lukaku, who just turned 21 this past month, scored 16 goals in 33 appearances for the Toffees this year, in a performance that proved instrumental in their 5th place finish and Europa League qualification—and similar to what Lukaku produced in his previous year’s loan at West Bromwich Albion. And after Belgian national squad teammate Christian Benteke ruptured an Achilles tendon in April, what was unofficially developing through Lukaku’s superior play was now to be official. Though he’s still just 21, the Antwerp-born striker would be named the primary line-leader, supported in attack by some of the world’s best players.
Lukaku, whose father was a professional footballer in Belgium (and was capped internationally by Zaire), has been in Belgian soccer academies since age 5, and came of age in the Anderlecht system, signing his first pro contract at age 16. Though Lukaku signed with Chelsea in 2011, and professed a love for the club in a 2009 documentary on his school—albeit, while he and his classmates were on a field trip to London and touring Stamford Bridge—he’s only played for Chelsea 15 times in his three-year career under contract to the Blues, and has yet to score for them.
manager Roberto Martinez has publicly praised Lukaku on multiple occasions, recently declaring, “As a number nine, he is as complete as you are going to get in world football.” Back in November, Martinez also praised Lukaku’s judgment in every situation he’s faced so far.
Those quotes, however, predated a January flap that Lukaku innocuously created when he defended his childhood idol and recent West Brom teammate Nicolas Anelka, whose “quenelle” celebration for a goal against West Ham last Dec. 28—a nod to a French comedian friend—was seen as an anti-Semitic gesture that the FA and West Brom club sponsor Zoopla frowned upon. Everton was quick to erase any trace of Lukaku’s support for Anelka on its social media channels, and Lukaku learned a lesson that, even though you might believe that something doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal to you, asserting that won’t magically change the minds of people who think a quenelle, for instance, is a big deal.
And yet, that’s really the only occasion for demerits to date for a player who seems eager to learn more about the game, is loyal to the teammates he’s been loaned to, and, in fact, is dealing well with the weirdness inherent when a Top Five team loans a player to another Top Five team.
Belgium has the talent to keep pace with the best of the World Cup teams, and though Lukaku is still somewhat of a raw talent, he’s part of the equation that makes Belgium an intriguing dark horse candidate. And though some critics see cracks in the foundation that will ultimately lead to their undoing, they’re a prime candidate to knock out the U.S. in the Round of 16 (assuming Belgium wins its group and the Americans survive its Group of Death to advance), and they’re positioned to knock out one of soccer’s more established powers before they’re done.
And, for all the seasoned players surrounding Lukaku on the squad, it’s evident that at least one, if not more, of Belgium’s World Cup matches—and the squad’s fortunes, will depend on what he can do with his feet in critical moments. Given what he’s been able to do on the stages of London and Manchester and Liverpool, he seems up to the task.