What’s bad news for most can be good news for some. As harsh as it may sound, this was the case when Christian Benteke was ruled out of the World Cup after suffering a serious injury in April. Belgium lost their best striker, but Romelu Lukaku, who was immediately hailed as Benteke’s replacement, gained an opportunity to show the world what he was worth.
For Lukaku, the unexpected turn of events had the potential of being career changing. The striker was facing a crossroad at the time: Having failed to convince his manager Jose Mourinho despite playing well for Everton on loan, he was, to all intents and purposes, on the lookout for a new club.
At the World Cup, he would be the focal point of a gifted strike force. Playing behind him, he’d have players like Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne. Surely, he’d be able to score a goal or two, and surely, he would see his stock rise, right to the point where he’d be one of the most desired players on the market by August?
At the World Cup, Lukaku was supposed to show that the musings that have accompanied him since his time at Anderlecht are not based on this air. At the World Cup, Lukaku was supposed to prove, once and for all, that he’s as gifted and extraordinarily talented as he’s sometimes made out to be.
All of that, and maybe even more, must have been running, like a rabid dog, through the mind of Lukaku. And for exactly that reason, the 21-year-old’s tournament has so far been underwhelming.
During Belgium’s first match against Algeria, Lukaku failed to play the prominent attacking role he’s expected to play—even when his team were 1-0 down. In the second half, he was replaced by youngster Divock Origi. Against Russia, when the Rode Duivels looked uninspiring during the first half, Lukaku was once again replaced. This time, Origi scored the winning goal.
The plan was to once and for all graduate from journeyman status. But as things stand, Jose Mourinho has been vindicated in his decision to refrain from recalling Lukaku from his Everton loan spell and look for a new striker instead.
If this were a trial and Lukaku was asked to defend himself in front of a jury of intensely scrutinous football critics, the striker could, of course, state that the crushing pressure of expectations on his shoulders would be too much to bear for anyone.
Lukaku would, of course, be right. But who, exactly, is putting this pressure on the 21-year-old’s shoulders? Is it his jurors, looking at him from their pedestals, their eyes constantly following every step he takes? Is is the media, the fans, the pundits, the columnists, all those people who have something to say about the striker, day in, day out?
Or is Lukaku, in fact, burdening himself with the intolerably heavy weight of expectation?
Sure, the narrative that has been spun around the Belgian former wonderkid has not made it easier for Lukaku to perform. But simultaneously, it’s part of a footballer’s task to block out these external influences. Attributes like focus, drive, concentration, composure and ability to handle pressure are all supposed to be part of an athlete’s mental arsenal.
It’s easier said than done, of course. But that’s why only the best players get to shine during World Cups. And that’s why it’s difficult, even after successful loan spells, to earn your place at a title-challenging team like Chelsea.
In its hunger for achievements, the world of football is a cruel one, and while it’s difficult to dislike the seemingly sympathetic Lukaku, it’s equally difficult to deny the striker has just about used up his credit. In Belgium’s final group match against South Korea, Lukaku must finally perform. Should Origi once again replace him and score, he might just lose his place in Belgium’s first XI.
What could have been a fairytale would then end in disappointment.
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