Football fans often lose sight of the fact that players are human beings, with their own motivations, experiences and pressures that do not solely revolve around devotion to the club for which they play and which we either support or oppose. The Players’ Tribune website has, since its inception, given us a window into the lives of top sports people, reminding us that they have back stories which are as complex as our own, often even more so.
On the morning of the World Cup match between Belgium and Panama, in which Romelu Lukaku became the fifth United player to take the pitch at the tournament in Russia, it was the Belgian who opened up about his upbringing and what drives him to maximise his life and be the best footballer that he can be. His is a story of grinding poverty and the constant doubt of others, about his age and his heritage. The son of Congolese immigrants he has been unable to win over some sections of the Belgian public and whilst he doesn’t directly apportion a reason there is an implication that race and origins play a part. It is impossible to read his words and not think differently about a man who often suffers the footballers curse of being reduced to his transfer value, wages and minutes to goal ratio.
This is Lukaku’s second World Cup and, with a golden generation at its peak, probably the best chance he and his country will ever have to win the tournament, even though he himself is young enough to take part in two more in his prime years.
As Bryan Robson will attest, participation at future tournament finals can never be taken as a given. Belgium have been handed a relatively tame group and the opener against Panama was perhaps the most benign start they could have hoped for. They, and manager Roberto Martinez, will not have been overly afraid of what is to come after England and Tunisia laboured in the other Group G fixture.
As they had during most of a very straightforward qualifying campaign Belgium set up against Panama in a 3-4-3 formation with Lukaku as the central striker, flanked by Eden Hazard to his left and Dries Mertens to his right. With De Bruyne playing too deep and the third centre back superfluous it was initially a more difficult task than it should have been. The team struggled to break down the committed but limited Panamanians, playing in their first ever World Cup, and Lukaku touched the ball only seven times in a goalless first half. After the break however Mertens quickly opened the scoring for Belgium with a beautiful angled shot and the game immediately opened up as their opponents became a little more adventurous and progressively more tired.
Lukaku was thereafter more involved, enjoying 23 touches in the second half, but his job is not to link the play or create opportunities for others. Belgium are overflowing with creative talent. The 25 year-old’s sole responsibility is to score goals, something which he has done with remarkable regularity for his country in recent times, and he would do so twice in the space of six second half minutes in Sochi. First Kevin De Bruyne crossed beautifully with the outside of his right foot for Lukaku, just onside, to powerfully head home and soon after he expertly dinked the ball past the keeper when put through on goal by Eden Hazard. He will hope to add to that tally against Tunisia on Saturday as he attempts to keep pace with Cristiano Ronaldo in the race for the tournament Golden Boot.
United’s players have enjoyed a mixed start to this World Cup, with Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic enjoying reasonably positive first matches. David De Gea and Marcos Rojo will be less pleased with their efforts to date, whilst Victor Lindelof will be disappointed to have missed Sweden’s opening match victory against South Korea through illness. Marouane Fellaini will also have to wait for his chance to make a meaningful impact in Russia, Roberto Martinez starting him on the bench for the Panama game and opting for other substitutes as events unfolded. Lukaku, however, has had the most positive start of all and will be full of confidence for the second Group G game against Tunisia. In interviews he has always come across as a confident, humble and intelligent young man and after reading his Players’ Tribune piece it is impossible to fail to understand what playing at a World Cup means to him and his family. In the tribal world of football fandom we can all do with a reminder from time to time that footballers are humans whose motivations sometimes, not unreasonably, diverge from our own but are no less valid.