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The Romelu Lukaku Renaissance

After the best professional season of his career, Lukaku powered Belgium through the group stages at Euro 2020. And he’s only getting started.

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. What footballers know is that the longest distance between two points is the way back from failure. Romelu Lukaku set out on that road almost a year ago and has now reached such speed that he has far outpaced any challenger who was ahead of him. It is a remarkable return, a hero’s journey, and now he ventures across Europe with his national team at the Euro 2020 tournament, perhaps on course for further glory.

But more on his adventures with Belgium later. Let’s look at the start of that quest, which began on a summer evening in Cologne last year. That night, Inter Milan played Sevilla in the Europa League final, and Lukaku was ready for his moment. Throughout his career, countless critics had said that the one thing keeping Lukaku from greatness was his inability to score in the very biggest matches—a criticism, incidentally, that they also once leveled at his mentor Thierry Henry, who coaches him and other attackers for Belgium. But against Sevilla, Lukaku was ready to lead the line as superbly as he had all season. He opened the scoring after just five minutes, putting his team ahead with a supremely confident penalty. And then, with 16 minutes to go in a thrilling encounter, he scored again.

The only problem was that this time Lukaku had found his own net. A free kick was sent swirling into Inter Milan’s penalty area, where Diego Carlos launched himself into the air to meet the ball with a bicycle kick. His spectacular effort looked to be going safely wide of Inter Milan’s goal until Lukaku flung out his right foot—his attempt to clear the ball instead sent it flying past a startled Samir Handanovic. Lukaku’s disastrous intervention gave Sevilla the game and their sixth Europa League title by three goals to two. Meanwhile, Inter Milan had still not won a major European trophy since José Mourinho’s team claimed the UEFA Champions League in 2010.

As an avid social media user, Lukaku would have been all too aware of what came next. There was an avalanche of memes mocking him, his fatal mistake, his technique and playing style. The mockery was mean-spirited and utterly relentless, and some of it may have stung. Despite being the record goal scorer for his country at the age of just 28, the last silverware that Lukaku had won came when he was still playing in Belgium, a league championship with Anderlecht. His nomadic career, taking him from Chelsea to West Bromwich Albion to Everton to Manchester United, to that point had yielded so many goals—almost 200 at an excellent rate of one every two games—but no more medals.

Despite that personal success, Lukaku remained an easy target: not just for his lack of medals, or at times his lack of decisiveness in key matches, but for far more grim reasons. Put simply, Lukaku is a Black man who is outspoken about racism, a combination that in the current political climate is particular fuel for resentment. Some of that resentment was even defended by some of his own supporters. Against this backdrop of ignorance and hatred, faced with accusations that he would never truly be an elite striker, Lukaku saw only one way: forward. And how he has taken it.

Most people, on their road to redemption, will fill a backpack with supplies and then wearily start walking. But Lukaku put on a jetpack. His hallmark, after all, is astonishing resolve in the face of adversity. This season he asserted himself as the dominant attacking force in Serie A, scoring 24 times and providing 11 assists in 36 matches as he drove his team to their first league title in 11 years. Not satisfied with that accomplishment, he then turned his attention to Euro 2020, his hunger for success undiminished. And, so far, this stage is suiting him beautifully.

Maybe, given the format of Euro 2020, it is unsurprising that Lukaku is thriving. As someone who has spent his career roaming from club to club in pursuit of self-improvement, he probably enjoys going from country to country and dropping off one masterpiece at a time. What is certain is that however this stage of his story ends, he has experienced more in the group stages than most footballers do in the course of a tournament. First there was Belgium’s game in Russia, where he led his team with a kneel and raised-fist salute in support of Black Lives Matter, was booed for his trouble, then scored twice in a 3-0 victory. Then there was the game against Denmark in Copenhagen, just a few days after his Inter Milan teammate and close friend Christian Eriksen had collapsed while playing against Finland, an incident that but for quick interventions by Eriksen’s teammates and attendant medics could have proved fatal. Though he was visibly brimming with emotion, Lukaku excelled again, picking up his second straight man-of-the-match award as Belgium won 2-1. Finally, in a less dramatic but no less definitive outing, he scored his team’s second in Belgium’s final group game, a 2-0 win over Finland. Though he had a goal disallowed due to an agonizingly narrow offside, he returned in typically undeniable fashion just a few minutes later. Receiving the ball from Kevin De Bruyne in the middle of the penalty area, his back to goal, he spun swiftly round the defender who was desperately trying to ward him away, and then drove the ball into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. It was elite footwork that LeBron James would have been proud of.

There were three moments in that Denmark game that were signature Lukaku. The first came in the second half, when—with his team a goal down and being outfought across the pitch—he took matters into his own hands, or to his own feet. He burst past a defender with an acceleration that could have startled speed cameras, a surge down the wing that led to Belgium’s equalizer. The second came a few minutes later, when he shielded the ball from multiple defenders, before it was laid into the path of De Bruyne for the game’s decisive goal. And the third moment, the most poignant and powerful, came 10 minutes into the game, when play stopped so that everyone in the stadium could wish Eriksen well. Lukaku’s face at that moment was that of a man overflowing with love and solidarity for his teammates; it is this quality, beyond anything that he achieves on a football field, that makes him such a compelling protagonist.

What is so exciting for Lukaku now is that, in a crucial sense, he is free. That final against Sevilla, which would have been traumatic for so many other forwards, sank him so far in the contempt of his critics that there were no further expectations of him. They did not think that he would then produce a league campaign where he would utterly outshine both Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It was a remarkable turnaround. Lukaku is the footballing equivalent of the author Marlon James, who despite his brilliance struggled to sell his first two novels before being nominated for or winning everything in sight with his third.

And so, liberated from the judgments of others, Lukaku journeys onward: He can now write whichever stories he likes. Given that he has won two man-of-the-match awards in his first two games at Euro 2020, that is exactly what he is doing. More power to his pen, always.