The wall-to-wall smile after his fourth goal yesterday was in stark contrast to his tears a year ago after the lost World Cup match against Croatia.
Romelu Lukaku then had the chance four times to shoot Belgium to the next round, but luck was not on his side that day. He also had four chances against Azerbaijan yesterday and – as everyone knows by now – he scored four times in just 20 minutes.
There is no lack of symbolism: after a difficult period with the World Cup elimination, a second unsuccessful period at Chelsea and a difficult start at Inter, Big Rom seems to be completely back.
A conversion for which we as Belgians must also thank the inevitable José Mourinho. The eccentric trainer single-handedly brought Lukaku to Roma and made him believe in himself again.
“Lukaku was an ideal victim for Mourinho,” says Pierre Van Hooijdonk, once the man who scored goals for the Dutch team. “In a positive way, hey. Mourinho can tickle players and push them to unprecedented heights again. He has pushed the right buttons with Lukaku.”
After this qualifying campaign, Lukaku reached a unique position as the Belgian top scorer with 83 international goals. He even ranks 7th internationally.
“For us, Robin van Persie is the top scorer with 50 goals. There is still a serious gap in between. The fact that he has scored so many goals always gives the Belgian team security.”
But Lukaku’s value to the national team goes beyond just goals. Both on and off the field, Lukaku has become more important than ever. He has always been a leader, but recently the new generation can also call him captain.
“If you can make a striker captain, you should always do that as a trainer,” says Pierre Van Hooijdonk about Lukaku’s new role, which should not be overestimated. “That bond always gives a player one percent extra confidence.”
This is also evident from the way Lukaku finishes: as if he knows he won’t miss. But also in the way in which he takes the young violence around him by the hand.
Jeremy Doku and Johan Bakayoko look up at their deep striker. Not only when they want to aim a cross towards his forehead, but also when they are not on the ball. Then Lukaku is chatting to them non-stop.
“When he speaks, we listen,” Doku – who calls Lukaku his big football brother – said himself yesterday. “He doesn’t just speak, he also shows it on the field: we can always count on it.”
The love is mutual. “Playing with them is almost nostalgic for me,” says Lukaku about his striker brothers. “I always met such types when I was young at Anderlecht wings played, that’s why I scored so much. It’s easy for me.”
That bodes well for the upcoming European Championships, where he can take his ultimate revenge. “It would be the crowning glory of Lukaku’s work with this national team,” concludes Van Hooijdonk.