The next big thing. The real deal. The Prodigy. IBWM isn't about to break into 'firestarter', so it must be another teenage sensation. Chris Mayer looks at a credit to the Belgian nation.
The age-old tag of wonderkid is often banded around without much substance. It puts an unbelievable amount of pressure on a player when he bursts onto the global stage. There are numerous examples from the past few years alone (just ask Theo Walcott). But sometimes, you get a rare golden moment where the player in question thrives under the media spotlight. Undoubtedly, the player who’s currently ‘the next big thing’ is Anderlecht’s 17-year-old Romelu Lukaku.
He’s been linked to just about every Champions League contender for the past 12 months, but is he really the next Didier Drogba?
Early suggestions would indicate most probably. The comparisons between the two players are unavoidable. Both are muscular, skilful strikers, both can change games within an instant, and both are the best front man in their respective leagues by some distance. Of course, the Premier League is a more competitive division than the Belgian Pro League, but the impact that Lukaku had in his rookie season was astounding.
Often, young strikers deceive fans with glimpses of their brilliance, a prime example of that is Frederico Macheda’s late strike in 2009 against Aston Villa. He’s hasn’t even come close to repeating the feat or the plaudits from the media. But Lukaku was consistently superb last year after his debut as a substitute in a play-off final against Standard Liege. Fifteen goals in your first professional season is unprecedented. Add to that several strikes in a Europa League campaign that saw Anderlecht reach the last eight. Ultimately, this tournament is where many European elites stood up and took notice of how quickly Lukaku was developing.
The Belgian media’s constant talk of all things Lukaku coined the term ‘Lukaku-mania’. He became the poster boy of the league, with all licensed products having the striker’s image rights adorned onto them. He is so important to maintaining the standard of the league that losing him would be a hammer blow.
Here is where Lukaku and Drogba differ: one is so gifted his start in football has been on a plate whilst the other grafted his way through the lower leagues. This does not mean that Lukaku does not have his feet well and truly grounded, far from it. His father, Roger, who spent most of his career in the Belgian lower leagues, is key to his son’s career decisions, and Lukaku chose to honour the club that nurtured his talent after signing a contract extension until 2015. His father has been the main icon in his life. According to his own website, the day his father gave him a football, he told him he would succeed him.
Of course, it would be surprising for Lukaku to see the contract out and it seems merely a token gesture to get a big fee for him, but it shows his loyalty to the side that gave him the break and he is clearly happy at Les Mauves. This didn’t stop his agent Christophe Henrotay reeling off the names of the clubs he’d been in contact with last month; with Real Madrid, AC Milan and Chelsea being suggested. These clubs won’t just be keeping tabs, they’ll be sending scouts to every game noting every moment of genius, and trust me there’s a lot of them.
It’s surprising that many European clubs didn’t act sooner to get their hands on the prodigy. His youth career stats are dazzling, 121 goals in 88 youth team matches at Anderlecht.
It’s easier for anyone to claim they found the next football superstar, with so many highlight reels crafted together on YouTube showing you endless Cruyff turns and Marseille roulettes. However, purely from the 90 minutes I saw against Saint Truiden a week ago, it is obvious to anyone that Lukaku is a gem.
The game itself was a turgid affair with STVV counteracting a lifeless approach from Anderlecht. Then out of nowhere in the 18th minute, Lukaku span past one defender and slotted home with consummate ease, reminiscent of Dennis Bergkamp. Ten minutes later, a clever one-two with Moroccan Mbark Boussoufa was followed by a thunderous strike over helpless keeper Sven Van De Jeugt. Lukaku made it look effortless and was the shining light in a fairly poor performance by his side.
Manager Ariel Jacobs insists on giving Lukaku minimal time, mainly down to his age, but it hardly ever matters. The impact he makes is always the same. These goals were his first since the end of March, but Jacobs waxed lyrical despite his drought. He said, "A striker is judged on goals. I am particularly pleased about the way he scores: they were primarily goals of a true striker.”
It seems only a matter of time until we see Romelu Lukaku gracing a club with Champions League medals stocked within its cabinet, but the impact this young 17-year-old has had on one country gives the Belgium national team a beacon of hope for the futures, probably the first time since Enzo Scifo or Luc Nilis. Not to just emulate them but surpass them.
Did I mention he has a brother called Jordan too?
Chris Mayer writes regularly about Belgium football for IBWM, but if you’d like to read more of his musings on European football, check out his blog 6pointer.