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Belgium's Romelu Lukaku has been subjected to racist abuse at multiple points in his career. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 205 pounds, the son of Congolese immigrants stands out and speaks out.
"I’ve been confronted by it many times in life," the Inter Milan forward said in 2019, discussing an incident where fans directed monkey chants at him. "You build a type of shell. I take my anger out on the field."
Watch the Antwerp native play, though, and "anger" is not how you'd describe his game. Lukaku's strengths have always been his intelligence, speed and skill.
"He is a thinker,” manager Roberto Martinez said of Lukaku back when both were at Everton in 2013. “He is a really knowledgeable man. He speaks six or seven languages, and is someone who looks at games in a very different way. He is like a manager in the way that he looks at movement. I've been very surprised with that side of him. He speaks about games that he's seen, different moves — not the normal conversation that you would have with an ordinary 20-year-old footballer, believe me."
Eight years later, Martinez is Belgium's manager and Lukaku is the country's all-time scoring leader, with nearly twice as many goals as his closest competition. Belgium, which is +700 to win Euro 2020 at BetMGM, has won its first two matches of the tournament and Lukaku has been named man of the match both times, showcasing how he's much more than a bruising forward to shove in the box.
In the opener, Lukaku pounced on a deflection for the first goal of the game. His second goal was a perfectly timed run to meet a ball arriving from deep in the midfield, after which he unleashed a first-time strike from just inside the box. On both occasions, Lukaku's hulking frame took a backseat to his deep understanding of the game, sense of positioning and superior technical ability.
In Belgium’s second match, a 2-1 victory over Denmark, Lukaku didn’t score or directly assist on either of Belgium's goals. He had a dismal fantasy game. But he still won man of the match honors over Kevin de Bruyne, who scored and assisted in the match and was brilliant in his own right.
Without Lukaku, Belgium would still be stuck in its own half.
On the first goal, Lukaku took possession just inside the Danish half, put one defender behind him with his first touch and avoided a sliding second by using his quick feet to poke the ball wide. He wasn’t touched as he raced into the 18-yard box, where he hadn't had a single touch in the first half.
Instead of getting tunnel vision and shooting from a sharp angle, Lukaku split two defenders with an intelligent and perfectly weighted pass to find de Bruyne. The Manchester City midfielder took one touch before picking out Thorgan Hazard flying to the back post for the finish.
De Bruyne got the assist and attention, but Lukaku made the goal with his dribbling and vision. The pace helped too, but the size and strength played no part. He was never touched by a defender.
On the second goal, Lukaku put his technical ability on full display, using his quick feet to dribble through two defenders on the wing before cutting out a third with a pass. He took 13 touches from receiving the ball to releasing it. From there four teammates took a total of four touches as de Bruyne fired home the winning goal.
Again, Lukaku’s physical attributes played a lesser role than his timing, skill and understanding of the game. If physical attributes were all that made Lukaku special, he would have peaked in the blue shirt of Chelsea or the red shirt Manchester United.
Prior to his move to Inter Milan in 2019, Lukaku always seemed to be on the cusp of becoming an elite forward, but not quite there. Two years later, Lukaku arrived at the European Championship fresh off an impressive season where he finished second in Italy's Serie A with 24 goals, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo's 29 for Juventus. Lukaku also tied for the league lead with 11 assists.
Above all else, Lukaku’s goals, assists and non-fantasy contributions led Inter Milan to its first Serie A title in over a decade. Carrying that same elite form into Euro 2020, Lukaku played a lead role in Belgium qualifying for the Round of 16 after two matches, where they'll only be four victories away from a first major trophy in their 117-year history.
Then, perhaps, he'll finally be rightfully recognized as one of the most intelligent forwards in world soccer.
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