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There is no better role model in modern football than Romelu Lukaku

‘Romelu Lukaku first touch’ is one of the first automatic drop down options when you Google the striker’s name.

He’s been branded ‘Judas’ by Everton fans, while their Man United equivalents celebrated his departure this summer.

He’s already been racially abused during his short spell in Italy, the disgraceful behaviour then played down by sections of his own fans.


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Lukaku has faced criticism everywhere he’s gone

AFP
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Lukaku has faced criticism everywhere he’s gone

Adversity and ridicule have been waiting around every corner.

Despite everything that has been unceremoniously chucked at him during his career, Lukaku just gets on with it, keeping his head down, maintaining his focus on becoming the very best he can be.

“We literally had to drag him off the training pitch at the end of every day,” Jerome Thomas, Lukaku’s former team-mate at West Brom, tells Dream Team.

“As soon as he came he was so humble, always practising his shooting, always working on his right foot.

“He has this raw hunger to improve and he’s still like that to this day.”

Thomas and Lukaku forged a friendship after playing together at West Brom in 2012/13

Action Images - Reuters
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Thomas and Lukaku forged a friendship after playing together at West Brom in 2012/13

Thomas, now an academy scout at Chelsea, says Lukaku is “one of the few footballers I still have a relationship with”, striking up a lasting bond after sitting next to each other in the Baggies’ changing rooms.

“When he takes all his mates away on holiday he refuses to let anyone else pay for anything,” the former Arsenal youth product says.

“But not in a showy ‘look at me I’ve made it’ way. It’s ‘we’ve made it’ with Rom. If I ever needed a favour, I know I could rely on him.”

An infectious smile

AFP
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An infectious smile

COMPASSION

Two moments in recent years really stick long in the memory with Lukaku.

In a Champions League clash with Benfica two years ago, 18-year-old goalkeeper Mile Svilar, on his European debut, inadvertently carried the ball over his line to gift Man United a 1-0 win.

The vast majority won’t even have acknowledged the stricken stopper, but Lukaku earned huge plaudits for consoling the distraught debutant.

18 months later he repeated the gesture with Presnel Kimpembe, whose injury-time handball in the penalty area effectively vanquished PSG’s place in last season’s quarter-finals.

Lukaku saw despair in their eyes, drawing from his own steep learning curves growing up in genuine poverty in Antwerp.

I challenge you to come away from reading his Players’ Tribune piece without thinking he’s a special human being.

Scoring goals since day dot

PA:Press Association
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Scoring goals since day dot

There he retells a story from his childhood when he realised his mother was diluting milk with water to make it last longer.

“We were broke. Not just poor, but broke,” he confesses.

And Thomas cites Lukaku’s incomprehensibly tough upbringing as crucial in determining the man he has become today.

Lukaku says he treats every game or session like a final

AFP or licensors
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Lukaku says he treats every game or session like a final

“When players have a clean rise from the bottom to the top with no issues – the silver spoon from an early age – you can lack compassion,” he says.

“With Rom he’s had setbacks all the way through his life.

“I think adversity and down times, like having to come on loan to West Brom, actually shape you as a person.

“It made him more hungry to prove people wrong, driving him on further to ensure he was always going to win.”

Lukaku scored 17 goals during a brilliant spell at the Hawthorns

Action Images - Reuters
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Lukaku scored 17 goals during a brilliant spell at the Hawthorns

Lukaku, unlike many of his peers, isn’t resting on his laurels either after watching his father – also a professional footballer – run out of money in the latter stages of his career.

He has signed up to Jay Z’s Roc Nation agency with the hope of developing his brand in the US, a move that also inspired Belgian compatriot Kevin De Bruyne to do the same.

MULTILINGUAL

Then there’s his abundance of languages.

At the weekend, Lukaku was seen confidently and eloquently answering questions in fluent Italian just months after his move to Inter Milan.

He’s clearly a natural, but his mastering of Italian takes his tally to eight languages. Roger Federer, who is lauded incessantly for the very same trait, knows six.

“Sometimes I get a headache,” he told ESPN. “It’s important for me as a player that they understand me perfectly. How I want the ball. Where I want the ball.

“I have to know those exact words in Italian because the subtleties are different in every language. There’s no substitute for that.”

Thomas believes Conte plays Lukaku to his strengths

EPA
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Thomas believes Conte plays Lukaku to his strengths

Contrast that with Sergio Aguero, who has barely muttered a word of English publicly in nine years at Man City, and Gareth Bale, whose well publicised marginalisation at Real Madrid is a consequence of his refusal to embrace Spanish.

“Rom didn’t need to do that, but it’s the little things that say a lot about someone’s character,” Thomas adds.

“It’s a respect thing, for the culture, the surroundings, the employer and your team-mates.

“The least you can do is respect the culture and the language instead of assuming others will change for you.”

RISING TO RACISM

Back to that horrific incident in Cagliari at the start of September this year.

Lukaku is far from the first – and unfortunately very unlikely to be the last – black player to be abused by home fans at the Sardegna Arena.

Cool and composed amidst a despicable atmosphere, Lukaku let his feet do the talking when he dispatched a penalty in front of the perpetrators during a 2-1 win.

A look that says a thousand words

Getty Images - Getty
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A look that says a thousand words

Just a few weeks later, an Italian pundit was sacked after talking about “giving him 10 bananas to eat” live on air.

Whether he likes it or not, he’s been catapulted into the racism debate.

“I’m not sure he was aiming to be that [a role model to young black footballers] but that’s the position he’s been put in,” says Thomas, who admits he used to come home to the word n***** spray painted on his garage door.

“I grew up watching Italian football, watching Gazetta Football Italia, and racism has always been there. It’s no surprise to me at all.

“It’s going to take a lot more than football to eradicate it, it’s a societal and generational thing.

“But Rom will be able to deal with it. He’s strong enough.”

Saluting the Inter fans after signing in the summer

AP:Associated Press
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Saluting the Inter fans after signing in the summer

What’s easy to forget is Lukaku is still just 26, but you won’t find a better role model in the modern game.

This is a man who has 51 goals in 83 games for his country.

A man for the big occasion, who at the World Cup showed unbelievable ingenuity with a ‘double no-touch assist’ against Japan in the last 16, before terrorising Brazil in the quarter-finals.

Thomas compared Lukaku to Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo

Getty - Contributor
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Thomas compared Lukaku to Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo

There are many misconceptions about him, but the most unfounded may well be constant accusations of laziness.

His form dipped at Old Trafford but he was scapegoated and mistreated there, the club failing to protect him when rumours of his future circulated this summer.

“They have to find somebody [to blame],” he told the LightHarted podcast. “It is Pogba, it is me or it is Alexis. It’s the three of us all the time. For me, I just see it in many ways.

“If you don’t want to protect somebody, all these rumours come out. I just wanted you [United] to say: ‘Rom is going to fight for his place,’ but it never happened in four, five months.”

No player has had to put in more extra hours, show more drive and silence more haters than he has on his way to the top.

For that we should appreciate him for what he really is; one of the most best marksmen of his generation, and an even better bloke.